Beech 1

Back in September, in Sefton Park on the trunk of a spreading beech tree I pass every day walking our dog, a notice appeared.  Following an inspection of trees in the park, it stated, this tree had been identified as hazardous, its continued existence posing an unacceptable threat to the public.  Urgent and drastic action was required and the tree would be felled within days.

Beech 5

Beech 4

Beech 2

It’s always sad to come across a tree laid, low in a winter storm maybe, that has fallen under its own weight or weakened by old age.  But to see a fine tree condemned to death in hours is a sad thing indeed.

Beech 3

Beech 6

Enquiries suggested that the beech had become hazardous as a result of infection spreading through the root system.  Two days later the process of felling the tree began: all the major limbs and branches were removed, and the tree remained for several more days, reduced to a bare, leafless skeletal trunk.  Then, finally, one morning’s walk revealed the end: the trunk felled and sliced up into heavy sections.

There is a beautiful passage in Hermann Hesse’s Trees: Reflections and Poems, originally published in 1984 that expresses very well the sense of loss that I felt:

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Beech 7

Beech 9

Last month Seamus Heaney died, so some of his poetry was fresh in my mind. His 1987 collection, The Haw Lantern, includes a sequence, ‘Clearances’, in memory of his mother. In his collection of essays, The Government of the Tongue, Heaney discussed this poem, of how it was inspired by a chestnut tree his aunt planted in her yard the same year he was born. Through all his years of growing, he identified with the tree and felt a deep sense of loss years later when he heard that the family that had moved into his aunt’s house after her had cut it down. Writing about his mother’s death in ‘Clearances’, the memory of the tree returned, or rather he wrote, ‘the space where it had been’ did: ‘a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light’.

Beech 8

Writing about the death of his mother, that ‘luminous emptiness’ became a symbol of ‘preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife’.  It was Heaney’s expression – ‘a luminous emptiness’ – that came into my mind as I took in the space opened up by the absence of the beech tree.

…. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge among the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

16 thoughts on “Requiem for a tree: a ‘luminous emptiness’

  1. Well Gerry that’s a real tragedy, I remember the great trees of Sevvy Park as a boy.
    Looking at the images of this tree and having some experience of surveying trees in my Job this Beech looks to be well into its second century, by my reckoning this tree would have happily survived another 100 years no problem. Bloody jobs worth from H&S probably.

  2. The stranglehold of the insurance companies is usually to blame for cutting down trees these days. What a tragedy. Thanks for the Seamus Heaney though.

  3. This was a sad day indeed. The poem is lovely, as are the photos. Hopefully the parks people are a bit more enlightened these days and will leave the trunk and limbs there to be sat and clambered on and to give a home to lots of wood boring insects! There does seem to be a lot of diseases affecting trees…I’ve just been in France and all the 42,000 plane trees along the Canal du Midi are dying from a waterborne microscopic fungus and they are succumbing one by one. Thanks Gerry.

    1. They seem to have good working practices in Sefton Park – cut limbs are usually left in situ, while trunks are often relocated to positions where they block mad motorists attempting to drive through the park. Leaves and branches are recycled for compost or wood chip. I know there have been comments here that suggest this felling was health & safety madness, but I like to believe that the park experts knew what they were doing.

      1. Yes beech do have a tendency to topple…think it may be to do with the fairly shallow rootedness for their size. You see them down in woods quite a lot after high winds…all part of the natural cycle!

  4. You are right of course Gerry, Sefton Park has always been very well managed and is now a model for this.
    It is a real shame that this wonderful Beech has had to succumb to the chainsaw, looking at your images the crown looks to be in very good health and I’m sure it would have survived for many years to come, shame it was so close to the road, they may have had other plans if it was in an open area.Great to see that they will eco-pile the timber for the insect life and block the vehicular access for the low life.Lovely poem too.

  5. Lovely tree; lovely recourse to Seamus Heaney’s masterfully crafted reflexions too. Oddly enough though, looking at the snaps, I was reminded, inter alia, of a visit I made as a “sixth former” * to the local varsity engineering department exhibition on Brownlow Hill in ’58. They had a spanner-shaped piece of perspex with a beam of light shining through it, all in a vice; you would exert some force on it and, on a screen behind the spanner, showing its ordinary shape, shadows would appear, because the force altered the refractive index of the perspex. The idea was to show how to design force-bearing compònents, this being part of work they did in the department. I have often contemplated trees, with weight forces and wind forces, all concentrated in the lower trunk, itself firmly held in place by the root system. Ane every single tree is a unique engineering solution to the particular set stresses and strains exerted by the growing tree. In that light too, apart from the nesting birds and so forth, it’s a crying shame to see nature’s optimised engineering being torn down. Thanks for the post there; I reaaly liked it.

  6. Reply to John Kelly: I watched the video, John. Very interesting, indeed. I wonder – do those same fungi function in an English context in the same way? Is there documented evidence of this?

    1. Dear Gerry,

                  I don’t know more than what’s there but the implications – and synaptic similarities – place you in open country speculation-wise on more than one front. 

                  Professor Simard is in Vancouver and her e-mail is; her Varsity reference page is and she’s part of the Below-Ground Ecosystem Group there. 

                 I’d imagine she’d be delighted to get a query in your terms from the public at large. 

                 If you’re flora-fancied, you may find the book “1491” by American journalist Charles Mann that treats the pre-colonisation Americas and has much to say about agri-matters and tree management by indigenous populations (which, in the context of this latest waxes larger).

                 Frankly, it came to me as recommended but not something I’d have gone out to buy. It was really quite surprising though and, despite my initial lack of interest (I live in Caracas so, ‘more precolombian shards? No thanks!’) and the occasional bouts of academic density, I have been recommending it since.

                 If you’ve stumbled on “A Naturalist on The River Amazons”(sic) where Bates thought he was making inroads into virtually virgin forestland, it becomes more interesting even. (Wiki ref. and it has a foreword by Charles Darwin, to boot!)

      Best and Keep Up The Good Work!

      John K

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