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Orcs Are Roaming Freely

State of the Union: A historic sycamore tree was felled by our times.

An old (and famous) sycamore tree that stood next to the Hadrian’s Wall in England for hundreds of years was deliberately felled in an act of mindless savagery. A 16-year-old boy and a 60-year-old man have been arrested in connection with the vandalism. No other information about them and their motivations were given; one can only imagine why. 

I am not sure why this sort of thing bothers me so much, more even than actual human suffering at times; perhaps because any mindless savagery, from toppling statues to burning churches and libraries to trophy hunting and felling trees should hurt a reactionary. Perhaps because I am just a historian. Men often suffer due to social causes, but men mostly suffer due to consequences of their choices. Trees, on the other hand, are different. (As are statues.) And it is our duty to protect them. 


The ancients would have known and attributed this savagery and madness to demons or curses from the vengeful older gods. Normal people don’t just randomly get up in the middle of the night to fell centuries-old trees. For that matter, we don’t just randomly riot, or loot, or commit arson, or vandalize. Or topple ancient statues and desecrate memorials. 

As Oxford classicist Armand D’Angour reminded us, there’s something ancient and spirited about trees; failure to save them brings down the wrath of the gods. 

Erysichthon, King of Thessaly, who impiously orders the sacred grove of Demeter (Roman Ceres), goddess of the harvest, to be cut down. When his retainers refuse to do so, Erysichthon takes an axe and chops it down himself. The dying dryad of the grove lays a curse on him, whereupon Ceres punishes him with insatiable hunger. Having sold all his possessions in his desperate need for food, Erysichthon eventually sells his own daughter and has her procure food for him. But the more he eats, the more he is tormented by hunger, and after all his possessions are exhausted he gruesomely resorts to eating his own body.

A strong metaphor for the state of our civilization. But disorder is, at the end of the day, not just a legal, but a spiritual issue. Most civilized people, for the most part, are conservative and law-abiding by instinct. But some are not. With the increasing paganization of society, older curses are coming back. A pagan world will eventually need pagan punishments. This may be such a time. 

As Treebeard said, “They come with fire, they come with axes! Gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning! Destroyers and usurpers! Curse them!”


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