Long Live the Trees!

Elizabeth and DarcyHow many times have you watched the TV mini-series Pride & Prejudice (1995) with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy? (Men need not reply.)

Confession time: I watch the five-part movie at least once a year with a group of girlfriends over the Labor Day weekend. It’s a tradition. After eighteen years, I can quote long sections of the script by memory.

Pride & PrejudiceIn one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, Elizabeth Bennett has gone with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner on a tour of the Peak District. The Gardiners suggest a visit to Pemberley, the country estate of the Darcy family, and—horror of horrors—Mr. Darcy, who is supposed to be in London, shows up. Elizabeth, assuming that Darcy will be offended by their presumption, is mortified. To her amazement, he is “all ease and friendliness.” Seeing Elizabeth’s companions, he asks for an introduction.

“You are staying at the inn at Lambton, I hear,” Darcy says.

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Gardiner replies. “I grew up there as a girl.”

“Delightful village. I remember running from Pemberley to Lambton almost every day as a boy during the horse-chestnut season. There was one very fine tree there.”

“On the green. By the smithy.”

England is famous for its fine and ancient trees. Most are found, however, not on village greens or in woodlands but in churchyards and historic parklands where they have plenty of space to grow and “long continuity of benign management.” (Britain’s Tree Story, Ray Hawes, National Trust).

Like all living things, trees have a life span. Unfortunately, England’s great trees are being lost at an alarming rate, victims to disease, storms, vandalism, and old age. Even after trees die, however, they can stand for many years, monuments to the past.

Queen Elizabeth IOne such tree is Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, which stands in the grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. On the seventeenth of November 1558, the young Elizabeth was allegedly sitting beneath its spreading limbs, either eating an apple or reading the Bible (depending on the version) when a messenger arrived from London with the news that Queen Mary had died, making Elizabeth the new queen. “This is the Lord’s doing,” the young Elizabeth is reputed to have said, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

In 1846 Queen Victoria took an acorn from the great oak. Queen Elizabeth's Oak 1893By 1935 the tree was on its last legs, propped up and bound with iron rings. The last remnants were finally removed on the seventeenth of November 1978, exactly 420 years after Elizabeth received the news that changed history.

Fortingall YewThe oldest tree in Britain—and reputedly the oldest living organism in Europe—is the Fortingall Yew, which stands near the parish church in Fortingall, Perthshire, Scotland. Recent estimates place the tree’s age at around 5,000 years. This tree witnessed the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. When Stonehenge was built, the Fortingall Yew was already mature. When Jesus Christ was born, the tree was ancient. In 1759, the Fortingall Yew measured an impressive fifty-two feet in girth. Natural decay of the ancient heartwood has turned the once-magnificent trunk into several stems, like individual trees.

Local tradition claims that Fortingall was the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator in Judea when Jesus was arrested and crucified. According to the legend, Pilate was born when his father visited the local Celtic peoples as emissary from Augustus Caesar. By the seventh century A.D., Fortingall was an important Christian center, the place where missionaries from the island of Jura off Scotland’s west coast came to preach to the Picts. Even then the Fortingall Yew would have been of significant size.

The greatest threat to the venerable tree has been relic hunters who, in the past, removed large branches to make drinking cups and other curiosities. Fortunately, the Fortingall Yew is now protected by a low stone wall. It remains in reasonably good health, producing abundant foliage. Cuttings taken by Britain’s Forestry Commission are being propagated for planting elsewhere, including a proposed mile-long hedge at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

Long live the Fortingall Yew—a very fine tree indeed.

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