Real-life Ents

I confess: We got the extended DVD versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, extra footage, production stories and all. It’s the first Big Fat Movie I’ve actually been impressed by in years, and sometimes I watch a bit of it just for the sake of looking at the props and scenery. (Who else out there wants to live in a hobbit house?) LotR won my heart when I saw they’d got the Ents right.

It’s a fine line that Peter Jackson and his movie crew had to tread. Ents are tree-herds, and very treelike in looks. They’re comical, with moss beards and knobby joints and the habit of incredibly slow pondering; they’re also dangerous and strong, and marshal their force to overwhelm the corrupt wizard Saruman’s dark satanic mills. There’s a certain melancholy about them, as they’re a dying species — the Entwives went missing years before we and the hobbits meet Treebeard. The Ents’ forest was split into remnants ages ago by Numenoreans—Aragorn’s ancestors— to build ships.

Sound familiar?

Tolkien’s work was infused with a sense of loss. It’s crass to call it a parable about Europe’s turn from agriculture to industries around the Great War, but that bit of Zeitgeist had something to do with his tone. But the loss he paints happened centuries before, when Europe’s great forests gave way to shipbuilding and grazing and widespread agriculture. Whether this led inevitably to oppressive factories and devastating pollution is debatable, but that sense of loss, of the immortals fading into the West with their brilliance and grace and a smaller, more circumscribed Age of Men the best hope left, lends his story a tone of melancholy, a minor key sung.

That’s well enough for fables, as is the myth of the all-unifying King and his loyal followers from beyond the grave. We tell ourselves such stories, but it’s dangerous to map our work and lives on them. Treating the Native American next door as an embodiment of that corny End of the Trail painting, the noble but conveniently doomed icon, is as dumb as it is annoying. Treating our forests as doomed somehow, passing like the fading Ents, is similar.

Sometimes a little knowledge of natural history can tempt us in that direction. Take the phrase “relict species.” I find a sort of charm in that idea myself — a treasure from a vanished trove, the surviving volume of a burned library, a window on another world. But I’ve heard people use it to dismiss a whole population, for example, California condors, as some collective thing that has lived beyond its time, something to be let vanish in the normal course of things.

Fortunately, there are visionaries whose future includes the designated past. They see what is, not some storybook abstraction, and work to keep alive what they love. Like the Ents, they get stirred to action when what they love is threatened, and so we have wing-tagged but free condors reviving their culture in spite of the threats that continue. We have forests being brought back to life out of mudslides and monoculture thickets, and urban streams seeing daylight and miraculously reinhabited by their seemingly vanished inhabitants: ferns, willows, waterstriders, phoebes, steelhead.

I’ve always wondered why Tolkien didn’t make his Ents gardeners rather than herders of trees. I wonder still if that might have forced a character change, made them less doomed and more determined. There’s more to forest health than trees—maybe that was what Tolkien missed—and the death of a living system is not so inevitable as the death of a mortal being.

Nobody who undertakes restoration gardening can know for sure that the work won’t be in vain. It’s a truism that all our victories are temporary and many of our defeats permanent. But medical workers have that same problem: saving lives is always temporary. That’s no reason not to do it. Lives get lived without anyone’s being able to see their length or end or use, which is how they differ from stories.

The folks doing restoration work in the forests and in our own towns aren’t working blindly; they just accept the limits of vision and move horizonward anyway.

Projects and grassroots groups are within everybody’s reach. Below are a few.

Some Local Ents

Ron Sullivan, author of The Garden Lover’s Guide: San Francisco Bay Area and garden editor at, writes The Dirt once a month in the San Francisco Chronicle Home and Garden section.

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