“I don’t know where I should be without the Botanical Gardens.” So Sebastian tells Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, as they head off together to Oxford’s famous arboretum, a plot of land occupying about four acres alongside the Cherwell river below Magdalen College. I wish I could say I had the Brideshead passage clearly in mind when my son and I headed off there ourselves the other morning, but no matter. The leaves of trees and books blur easily here in this highly cultivated place, and the literary allusions are thick on the ground.
Consider the picture to the left of my son in front of this especially big black pine. It is an enormous tree, and I was hoping to illustrate the point by having him stand in front of it with his arms outstretched. Beyond its size, this pine has a great pedigree. The famous English botanist, John Sibthorp, had brought the seeds of this very pinus nigra back with him from an expedition in Greece in 1790 and planted it here shortly thereafter, making it roughly the age of the U.S. Constitution. It was, furthermore, a favorite tree of no less than J.R.R. Tolkien’s, and the last known photograph taken of the great man shows him standing beside this very tree, as can be seen below.
According to the inscription on the back of the photo, Tolkien referred to this tree as Laocoön. It is easy to see why. The pine’s gnarled and twisting branches easily call to mind the intertwining of the snakes with human bodies in the famous Hellenistic statue. Among Tolkien buffs, there is a lively on-line discussion about this reference, and if any of them should happen upon this post, let me add to it my own two cents: yes, as a trained Latinist, Tolkien would certainly have known the statue of Laocoön, not least of all from the copy of it in the Cast Gallery of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, pictured below. I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than myself to decide whether this big black pine was a kernel in the author’s mind for his depiction of Treebeard.
There is another venerable tree in the Oxford Botanic Garden, one that is even older than Tolkien’s black pine, which also captures the imagination. It is a English yew, taxus baccata, planted in 1645, at the very time that Charles I was using Oxford as his capital during the English Civil War. Yew trees in general have a great reputation for longevity, and the oldest tree in Great Britain, and perhaps in all of Europe, is the Fortingall Yew in Scotland. (According to local legend, a young Pontius Pilate played in its shade when his father was serving as a Roman commander in Britannia. That particular story is unlikely, of course, but the tree is nevertheless over two millennia old!)
Beyond its own tremendous age, the Oxford yew is notable for its more recent activity. According to Horti Praefectus (Director) Timothy Walker on the Botanic Garden’s podcast, the tree has recently switched gender:
For about three and a half centuries, it was male and then about ten years ago, decided to be female, and produce some ovaries and some seed. And that’s amazing, it’s like a father having a baby. And what this tree now knows is, it’s got some seeds out there. Otherwise it could not guarantee that any of its pollen had hit a female yew tree. And it’s an amazing story that has only ever been recorded from this tree.
Amazing, indeed, and almost begging for a supernatural explanation. Having lost his hope of an Entwife, maybe this Ent simply decided to become a transsexual? But I confess that the myths I thought of came from the classical world rather than Middle-earth. Zeus giving birth to Athena, for instance, or even more appropriately, the story Ovid tells of Tiresias, who changed suddenly into a woman and then back again into a man a few years years later. It is a myth employed by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland in the passage cited below:
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, …
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest–
I too awaited the expected guest. …
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
The last stanza is famously recited by the foppish Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, out the window of his room at Christ Church through a megaphone to a group of toothsome young men passing below (as can be seen at the end of the clip that follows). Right afterward this invocation of Eliot’s Tiresias, Sebastian and Charles go for their stroll to the Botanical Gardens, a plot of land with many a twist to it.
Postscript, January 2015. The black pine is now gone, taken down in the summer of 2014. See my post on this here.