Why Did Vandals Try to Destroy a Holy Tree?

On December 9, residents of Glastonbury, England discovered a gruesome crime scene. Vandals had dismembered the Holy Thorn Tree that sits atop Wearyall Hill. According to legend, this particular tree, which is native to the Holy Lands, sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he brought the Holy Grail to Britain. For over a hundred years, residents of Glastonbury have gathered annually to cut a single sprig from the tree, which is sacred to both Christians and Pagans. The sprig is then presented to the queen, placed on her dining room table for Christmas Day. The night after this year’s cutting ceremony, vandals severed all of the branches, reducing the historic tree to a stump.

The most disturbing aspect of the crime is its apparent meaninglessness. Various suspects have been named ranging from anti-monarchists to atheists. However, this appears to have been an act of destruction for the sake of destruction. The ubiquitous question is what would motivate someone to do such a thing? Theorists like Georges Bataille and Terry Eagleton might say that such acts are actually rooted in a longing for transcendence. To understand why, it should be noted that this is not an unprecedented event.

1989, Austin, Texas: Paul Cullen pours massive quantities of the herbicide Velpar onto the Treaty Oak, a 500-year-old tree with a canopy that spread 127 feet. Like the Holy Thorn Tree, the Treaty Oak had historic and social significance. According to legend, the tree had long been a site for diplomacy among Native American tribes and it was here that city founder Stephen F. Austin signed a treaty establishing boundaries for Texas settlers. With tremendous effort and money, an outraged community managed to save their sacred tree, while Cullen received a nine-year prison sentence. According to some accounts, he had sacrificed the tree as part of a love spell. Exactly whose love he so desperately sought varies from story to story.

1997, White Cliffs, Montana: Vandals destroy the Eye of the Needle, a natural sandstone arch that had formed 200 feet above the Missouri River. First discovered by Euro-Americans when Lewis and Clark traversed the river in 1805, several pages of Meriwether Lewis’ journal are in fact spent describing the area’s beauty and the awesome power of nature. On discovering the collapsed arch, authorities found empty beer bottles and the marks of a crowbar.

Individually each of these acts might be an anomaly, but together they form a pattern. One might call them, “crimes against creation.” Unlike normal environmental damage, they are motivated not by greed but by sadism. The apparent goal is to spite humanity by destroying something that can never be replaced. Natural wonders also possess sacred significance and, because of they are completely irreplaceable, their destruction is the closest a single person can come to attacking God.

Even if the perpetrators were caught it’s unlikely that they’d be able to articulate their motivations to anyone’s satisfaction. In the absence of a rational motive, it is often said that these vandals were driven by “evil.” This label may be valid, but it has no explanatory power. However misguided, the perpetrators of these crimes were people, not demons, and the feelings that motivated them were human feelings. It may be unpleasant to contemplate, but the occasional desire to destroy creation and spite humanity is not reserved for the criminally insane. One recalls the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, “I was in the mood to destroy something beautiful.”

Terry Eagleton argues that evil originates in a twisted yearning for the transcendent. Evildoers, he argues, are motivated by an ideal of perfection compared to which the mundane world seems not only worthless but also intolerable. In Eagleton’s words, “Evil is a kind of cosmic sulking.” Because destroying the world is not possible, the evildoer attempts to spread their malaise by making the rest of us as miserable as they are.

This relationship between destruction and transcendence is further explored in the work of Georges Bataille. Bataille described human experience as divided between “the order of intimacy” and “the order of things.” The order of intimacy, which he identified with the sacred, is an experience of primal oneness where individuals and objects simply exist without differentiation. Civilization, however, has given rise to the order of things, a profane world defined by discontinuity and individuation into subject and object. The order of things is inherently unsatisfying because nothing is allowed to simply exist; everything is dissected and reduced to its social or monetary value.

For Bataille, religion is “a search for lost intimacy,” an attempt to commune with a transcendent otherness that defies the distinctions of ordinary reality. In fact, this search for lost intimacy is precisely what makes the targets of these attacks—ancient trees and rock formations—precious in the first place. They have no purpose or intrinsic value; they simply are. This imbues them with a kind of sacrality. They are precious in part because they remind us that another reality exists beyond the one constructed by man.

Bataille argues that sacrifice is also motivated by the search for lost intimacy. The deliberate and wasteful destruction of something useful, precious, or socially significant defies the logic of the order of things. It creates a hole in mundane reality though which, under the right circumstances, a moment of transcendence can be experienced. Furthermore, the efficacy of the sacrifice is directly proportional to the senselessness of the destruction. Ironically, the social value ascribed to these sites made them ripe for sacrifice. Had the vandals been the only ones on Earth who knew about the Eye of the Needle, it may never have occurred to them to destroy it. Certainly, no sadistic impulse could be satisfied by destroying something that no one was able to appreciate. Instead these sites were the locus of communities, traditions, and histories stretching back centuries. It is this shared meaning that is the true target of the vandal’s sacrificial impulse.

This explanation is not to say that the vandals experienced a moment of transcendence when they committed their crimes, or even that they found a moment’s respite from their sadistic (and likely drunken) malaise. However, it does offer a profile of the perpetrator. The impulse to destroy something beautiful was likely motivated by profound dissatisfaction with the world and an unstated yearning for a better one. Poor Paul Cullen believed that ritually sacrificing the Treaty Oak would bring him love. While this story has been dismissed as evidence of insanity, it may actually provide an important insight into the nature of evil: Perhaps it is the desire for love and the perceived absence of it in the world that inspires senseless destruction.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).