Blog post

Our Living Heritage: Landmark Trees and the 'Arboreal Humanities'

Dr Anna Burton and Dr Amanda Blake Davis discover our living heritage through landmark trees and the growing field of 'arboreal humanities'.

24 June 2024

Last September, the image of a felled tree in Northumberland sparked global outrage. This was the iconic Sycamore Gap tree, known to many by its appearance in the 1991 film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. The solitary tree, planted in the nineteenth century as a landscape feature to complement the natural dip in the ground alongside Hadrian's Wall, was cut down overnight in an act of criminal damage that remains under investigation. Thousands of people from across the world took to social media to collectively grieve for the tree. Some had encountered the tree on walks, school and holiday excursions, and even on wedding photography shoots; for some, the tree was a neighbour, a landmark, a tourist destination. But many others had never encountered this tree in person, and yet felt moved to mourn for it. 

Recent scientific research into the lives of trees has revealed the existence of a 'wood wide web', or a connected underground network whereby trees communicate with each other and with surrounding life, such as other plants, and mushrooms. The felling of the Sycamore Gap tree has inspired a similar web of connection, communication, and commiseration between people and trees. Alongside these recent scientific discoveries around trees, researchers from the humanities are uncovering trees' impact on human culture, language, and history. This growing field - now often referred to as the 'arboreal humanities' - seeks to gain a broader understanding of how trees are represented and discussed through a variety of cultural mediums, and in turn, what this reveals about our perception of, connections with, and treatment of our arboreal neighbours, past, present, and future. 

Through their ongoing research, Dr Anna Burton and Dr Amanda Blake Davis, Lecturers in English Literature at the University of Derby, are exploring the literary and cultural history of human-tree relationships, within and beyond the nineteenth century. As part of this project, Burton and Davis have programmed a series of public events in collaboration with The Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London. This series will culminate in the launch of a Tree Cultures Network, open to all. 

In partnership with The Wordsworth Trust, Burton and Davis have organised an in-person event at Wordsworth Grasmere on 'The Literary Arboretum', and a series of online 'Tree Talks': online discussions about tree-oriented research, interests, and activism, including themes of tourism, communication, and heritage. The final talk in this series on 'Landmark Trees' will focus on the Sycamore Gap tree, considering connections between ancient trees in the cultural imagination and literary representation. 

The Wordsworth Trust is an independent charity dedicated to keeping the memory of the Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, his family, friends, and contemporaries alive through public events and exhibitions of literature and art, and Wordsworth was famously a great lover and caretaker of trees. His poems, 'Yew-Trees', venerates the Lorton and Borrowdale Yews, their preternatural existence in the landscape, and their significant place in national and Lakeland history: 

This solitary Tree! — a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed.

(William Wordsworth, 'Yew-Trees')

The sycamore is also a significant tree in Wordsworth's poetry, and a tree particularly connected to human connections and memory. The sycamore tree 'has long been a favourite of the cottagers', Wordsworth writes in his Guide to the Lakes. In his well-known poem, 'Tintern Abbey', the poet's memories of the sounds of the city - 'The still, sad music of humanity' - are recollected 'Here, under this dark sycamore', in view of 'These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts'. Trees mediate between natural and manmade environments. For Wordsworth, being with trees can help us to connect with memories of people and places. 

Will the loss of the Sycamore Gap tree mean a loss of future memories? Loss, for Wordsworth, is also a powerful force of connection between people and places. In his 'Ode to Immortality', Wordsworth writes: 

— But there’s a Tree, of many one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone

(William Wordsworth, 'Ode to Immortality')

Trees are great makers of memory, even when they are gone. Here, research in the sciences and the humanities converges; recent scientific studies of the 'wood wide web' reveal that, even when trees are long gone, leaving behind only decaying stumps, they remain vitally connected to the trees that surround them and continue to communicate. For writers like Wordsworth, trees are powerful figures of loss and memory that continue to connect people through the web of poetry. 

Trees' association with place and memory makes them figureheads for culture. At the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, a UNESCO World Heritage site of significant arboreal, botanical, and conservation interest, Tree Cultures at Kew will bring people together to explore how we understand and regard the value of trees in the cultural imagination. With guided tours of Kew's trees and discussions of 'Literary Trees' and 'Arboreal Histories', this one-day symposium will showcase emerging literary and environmental history scholarship on trees and tree spaces, and foster discussions around how the arts and humanities can continue to investigate and communicate arboricultural concerns, past, present and future.

All of the events listed above are free to attend and open to the public. These events will take place in the Lake District, London, and online in July 2024. 

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Dr Amanda Blake Davis

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Anna Burton reading a book in a forest setting

Dr Anna Burton

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