The Glastonbury Thorn. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Arboricide. There really is such a word. It means “the wanton destruction of trees.” On December 8th, 2010 arboricide was committed against the legendary Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, a tree that is said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea some two thousand years ago. The tree, whose ancestry has been traced to the Middle East, blooms during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. Each year on December 8th a sprig is cut from one of the tree’s descendants in St John’s churchyard and sent to the queen for her Christmas table. Whoever attacked the tree was likely familiar with the custom and chose the day accordingly. The Thorn Tree that stands – or stood – on Wearyall Hill was felled once before by Cromwell’s troops during England’s Civil War. The townspeople replanted the tree from cuttings, as they no doubt will again.
For the first arboricides, the tree was a symbol of Papist superstition – and perhaps also the wealth and privilege of the established religion. Whenever I hear the word Papist, I know the other “p” word, pagan, is just under the surface. The Cromwellians also made war on Maypoles, Beltane fires, observances of saints’ days, all the old customs that had been baptized and renamed by the Roman Catholic Church. Until the current arboricide is arrested, we can only speculate on the motive.
Some accounts call the arboricide an anti-Christian act which I think is unfortunate and inflammatory. The great thing about a holy tree is that no creed is required for veneration. Whether or not the tree sprang from Joseph’s staff and whether or not the staff was made from the wood of Jesus’s cross, the Glastonbury Thorn Tree is sacred because it is beloved, because it is a place of pilgrimage where people bring their troubles as well as their homage. It is sacred because it connects faith and myth, past and present, nature and miracle. It is sacred because it is a tree, with its roots in the earth and its branches in the sky, because it mediates those two worlds and draws sustenance from both, because, like all trees, it shows us how to do the same.
The veneration of trees pre-dates Christianity and no doubt all organized world religions. The tree is a source of life, offering shelter, food, habitat, fuel, soil preservation and enrichment – not to mention breathable air. In places where trees are scarce or land has been cleared, the tree is a gathering place, a landmark. In a world where we are losing forest at an alarmingly rapid rate, we would all do well to venerate trees, believers and atheists alike. No matter the motivation or beliefs of the arboricide, let’s not forget that it is a living tree that was attacked and living forests that continue to be at risk. May this loss awaken us to our deep-rooted, sacred connection with trees.