Friday, 24 March 2017

The Hungry Tree in the King's Inns

"Inosculation," Wikipedia tells me, "is a natural phenomenon in which trunks, branches or roots of two trees grow together."

This biological process is akin to grafting: trees touch, then branches move back and forth in the wind, then the bark on the touching surfaces gradually erodes away, then...

Plastic surgery has its own version of inosculation: as skin grafts take at the host site, blood vessels from the recipient site connect with those of the graft, restoring that all-essential vascularity.

What Wikipedia's entry for inosculation doesn't tell you - or at least didn't at the time of writing - is that the word in English comes from the Latin verb "osculare": to kiss. Excuse me for a second while I go all gooey at the knees at the sheer beauty of the English language.

Sometimes, though, the inosculation is not so much a mutual snog (as it were) or slow French kissing, more a relentlessly one-way affair.

The tree that ate the seat

The grounds of the King's Inns in Dublin has an example of the most one-way inosculation imaginable (though strictly speaking it's not inosculation, as it's not skin on skin or tree on tree: it's between a tree and a seat).

Over the years a park bench has been slowly swallowed up by a tree, whose wrinkled bark appears to be pouring over the back rail of the seat, like elephant skin or a sumo wrestler's belly blubber.

It's a surreal, bizarre, whimsical sight. So much so that this must be the most loved and most photographed tree in Ireland. It is Flann O'Brienesque, what with its echoes of Sergeant Pluck's atomic theories in Flann's classic novel The Third Policeman:
"People who spend most of their lives riding iron bicycles... get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of the bicycle as a result of interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles." 
But back to the tree. It's widely known as the Hungry Tree, and you can find it immediately inside the wrought-iron gates of the Constitution Hill entrance to the parkland in front of the west side of King's Inns (as opposed to its opposite entrance to the east, on Henrietta Street).

The inosculation process isn't like a snapshot, however much it might seem so to human eyes. It doesn't freeze a moment in time for eternity in the way that, say, fast-flowing molten lava eventually slows and cools into something far more solid and permanent.

Unlike much longer biological and geological timescales - think of yew trees or redwood, of coastal erosion or the way oil forms beneath the seabed, or how a boulder becomes a cobble becomes a pebble becomes sand - this particular inosculation is a very recent phenomenon, one that has been slowly unfolding in living memory.

While the bench may date from the early nineteenth century, experts reckon that the tree - a London plane - is only eighty to ninety years old.

The more the Hungry Tree's fame spreads - and the more it becomes "well fed" as it were - the more the photographs multiply. One day somebody will have the bright idea of crowdsourcing and compiling all these photos into a mesmerising timelapse film, giving a much better idea of the rate of "flow" of tree around bench.

Spot the difference: the Hungry Tree in the grounds of the King's Inns in summer 2016 (above) and a detail from Robert Ballagh's photograph of it (below) from around 1979 or 1980

For example, take this detail from a photograph by Robert Ballagh. It's from his splendid 1981 book Dublin. Judging by his introduction and the trees' bare branches, he probably photographed the tree in winter about a year before then.

In other words, check out the two photographs here. By 1980 the overflow was only about two and a half to three inches over the top of the bench, and about two thirds of the way along the top rail.

By the time I finally got round to taking my photos in summer 2016, the flow had already stretched horizontally to the full width of the rail, and vertically to the seat proper, a further six or seven inches down. At that rate it could be overflowing the bench's legs within a couple of decades. Or perhaps the process speeds up over time and the entire bench will be engulfed by then. I've made a note to check back again in 2026.

The Hungry Tree has featured in several films shot in Dublin, yet here's the rub: although the tree only began to take over the bench in the 1960s or 1970s, many of these movies are much older period pieces.

For example, Albert Nobbs, the 2011 film starring Glenn Close, is set in the 19th century. Anne Hathaway's 2007 costume drama Becoming Jane is set within Jane Austen's lifetime, in the 1790s.

So strictly speaking the tree is an anachronism, for while 1795 may indeed have marked the arrival of the empire waistline trend in women's fashion, there's no feckin' way that that tree and that seat could possibly have existed back then. In fact the King's Inns wasn't even there back then, despite its motto of  Nolumus Mutari (we shall not be changed).

The King's Inns

The foundation stone at today's site of the King's Inns was only laid in 1800, the very year in which the Acts of Union combined the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland (previously in personal union) to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The King's Inns institution itself, which controls the entry of barristers-at-law into Ireland's justice system, has a much longer history. It was founded in 1541, in honour of King Henry VIII of England and his newly established "Kingdom of Ireland". Hence the full official title is "The Honorable [sic] Society of King's Inns")
(A brief aside about the name: in our house we've always called it the King’s Inns, although the institution itself prefers to drop the "the". But the Irish do love their definite articles. My uncle - who served in the Irish Defence Forces until he went deaf - has this theory that the Irish army is only sent on UN peacekeeping missions to countries or regions that have a "the" in their name. Hence Irish soldiers served in the Congo, the Lebanon, the Golan Heights - and the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East - as well as the Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, the Balkans and what have you. The uncle's theory only break downs when you reel off all the other missions, starting with Cyprus, which is not the Cyprus. "Oh," he says, "you mean the Turks and the Greek Cypriots?")
The King's Inns was (were?) originally located on the quays, on grounds confiscated by King Henry's mob from a monastery. When the Four Courts were built in the 1790s, the King’s Inns was relocated to Constitution Hill and the present building, designed by architect James Gandon.

Other recent dramas that feature the King's Inns - though not necessarily the Hungry Tree - include the Haughey biopic Charlie (2014), Veronica Guerin (2003), Evelyn (2002), Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000), and the series Penny Dreadful.

Henrietta Street

Henrietta Street itself - the oldest Georgian street in Dublin - has featured in countless film and TV series, from Foyle's War and Quirke to Inspector George Gently. But perhaps most memorable was when it stood in for the tenements of Strumpet City. 

Dublin City Council is turning 14 Henrietta Street into a social history museum, due to open this summer. The aim is to chart the building's slow decline from a mansion for rich viscounts and lord chancellors to a tenement slum from 1883 onwards.

By the 1911 Census the building housed seventeen families - more than a hundred people - and it still had no internal plumbing. The house itself will - with some inevitable restoration to make it weatherproof and structurally sound and with a few modernities such as a lift and indoor toilets - become a time capsule of all these eras, particularly the 1913 Lockout.

This short video gives a quick potted history of the street.

The London plane

But back to the Hungry Tree, and how it should serve as a gentle reminder to be on our guard about where Nature stops and Culture starts. The Hungry Tree is not only a natural phenomenon but very much a cultural one too.

Perhaps its popularity as a cultural object stems from the pleasures of this incongruity, this meeting of Nature (the tree itself) and Culture (the bench), in which Nature clearly has the upper hand in the long term.

But Culture also includes a series of human interventions over the the centuries, such as the decisions to cultivate this particular patch of land and to enclose it, to own it, to sell and buy it, and to plant this particular tree in this "tamed" parkland during the early years of the new Irish State. In short, the tree itself is cultural - it too is an invention of sorts.

Despite its ubiquity in British and Irish cities - London plane trees account for over half of the tree population in the city of London - the species didn't even exist before the 17th century. It is a direct result of the colonisation of the Americas and Asia by the imperial powers of Europe.

By all accounts, the London plane only came about after its parent trees from opposite ends of the planet - Platanus orientalis (the Oriental plane) and Platanus occidentalis (the Western plane or American sycamore) - were planted close enough to each another to cross-pollinate and create a hybrid.

The earliest examples of this new hybrid species were found in Spain and in the Vauxhall Gardens in London in the mid-17th century. Then it was planted en masse in London and other big cities in England at a time when they were black with soot and smoke from the Industrial Revolution.

One of the reasons for the London plane's popularity in these cities was its hardy qualities: besides requiring little root space, it can survive in most soils, And its bark was made (as it were) for an industrial age of dark satanic mills: its distinctive camouflage pattern is due to the bark breaking away in large flakes, cleaning the tree of pollutants. Its maple-like leaves too, shaped like a five-pointed star, are so sleek that the daily London grime simply rinses away, leaving them a lush green.

The Hungry Tree is a perfect symbol of this fusion between history, culture and the London plane's evolutionary robustness in its metropolitan environments. It also says something about the differing timescales of nature and society.

There are rumours that the city council will one day make the Hungry Tree a listed structure, as if a ruling by corpo officials and an entry in a big book in City Hall can somehow hold back Nature with its unstoppable timescales and flowing bark. One day very soon, in just a few decades, either the tree or the bench will be no more, no matter what our local councillors might want or say or do or decree.

Update, 22 July 2017: it has come to pass. Yesterday's Irish Times reports that "Councillors on Dublin city’s Central Area Committee recently passed a motion seeking for the tree and the bench to be protected. Green Party councillor Ciarán Cuffe, who proposed the motion, called for a Tree Preservation Order for the plane tree and said the bench should be designated a protected structure under the planning Acts."