Friday, February 28, 2014


The Groaning Tree of Baddesley

In 1964 Donald Rusk Currey cut down a bristlecone pine that was older than the pyramids of Egypt, so that he could determine its age by counting its rings. Here is another example of arboricide committed in the name of science, from William Gilpin (1724-1804), Remarks on Forest Scenery, Vol. I (London: R. Blamire, 1791), pp. 162-164 (spelling etc. as in the original):
The next tree I shall exhibit from New-forest, is the groaning-tree of Badesly; a village about two miles from Lymington. The history of the groaning-tree is this. About forty years ago, a cottager, who lived near the centre of the village, heard frequently a strange noise, behind his house, like that of a person in extreme agony. Soon after, it caught the attention of his wife, who was then confined to her bed. She was a timorous woman, and being greatly alarmed, her husband endeavoured to persuade her, that the noise she heard, was only the bellowing of the stags in the forest. By degrees, however, the neighbours, on all sides heard it; and the thing began to be much talked of. It was by this time plainly discovered, that the groaning noise proceeded from an elm, which grew at the end of the garden. It was a young, vigorous tree; and to all appearance perfectly sound.

In a few weeks the fame of the groaning tree was spread far and wide; and people from. all parts flocked to hear it. Among others it attracted the curiosity of the late prince, and princess of Wales, who resided, at that time, for the advantage of a sea-bath, at Pilewell, the seat of Sir James Worsley, which stood within a quarter of a mile of the groaning tree.

Tho the country people assigned many superstitious causes for this strange phenomenon, the naturalist could assign no physical one, that was in any degree satisfactory. Some thought, it was owing to the twisting and friction of the roots. Others thought it proceeded from water, which had collected in the body of the tree—or perhaps from pent air. But no cause that was alledged, appeared equal to the effect. In the mean time, the tree did not always groan; sometimes disappointing it's visitants: yet no cause could be assigned for it's temporary cessations, either from seasons, or weather. If any difference was observed; it was thought to groan least, when the weather was wet; and most when it was clear, and frosty: but the found at all times seemed to arise from the root.

Thus the groaning tree continued an object of astonishment, during the space of eighteen, or twenty months, to all the country around; and for the information of distant parts a pamphlet was drawn up, containing a particular account of all the circumstances relating to it.

At length, the owner of it, a gentleman of the name of Forbes, making too rash an experiment to discover the cause, bored a hole in it's trunk. After this it never groaned. It was then rooted up, with a further view to make a discovery: but still nothing appeared, which led to any investigation of the cause. It was universally however believed, that there was no trick in the affair: but that some natural cause really existed, tho never understood.
By the way, the earliest example of the word English word arboricide occurs in the context of counting tree rings. See Asa Gray (1810-1888), "The Longevity of Trees," North American Review, Vol. 59, No. 124 (July 1844) 189-238, rpt. in Scientific Papers of Asa Gray, Vol. II: Essays; Biographical Sketches: 1841-1886 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889), pp. 71-124 (at 84):
[T]he age may be directly ascertained by counting the annual rings on a cross section of the trunk. The record is sometimes illegible or nearly so, but it is perfectly authentic; and when fairly deciphered, we may rely on its correctness. But the venerable trunks, whose ages we are most interested in determining, are rarely sound to the centre; and if they were, even the paramount interests of science would seldom excuse the arboricide.


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