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Her Majesty the millenary holm oak of Lecina: life and history of the European Tree of the Year | The weekly country

On March 17, 2021, the millenary holm oak from Lecina (Huesca) won the European Tree of the Year contest with the highest number of votes in its 11 editions: 104,264. Second came the magnificent banana from Curinga (Italy), with 78,210 votes, and third the sycamore from the Russian republic of Dagestan, whose remarkable natural merits were overshadowed because the organization of the contest, the Environmental Partnership Association, discovered that his candidacy was being backed by an army of bots; finally, it was proven that he had received 66,026 legal votes and more than 30,000 fraudulent ones. On the day of the triumph of the ancient holm oak (that’s how the holm oaks are called in Aragon), the handful of neighbors who live in Lecina, most of them in years, celebrated it in the square before a giant screen uncorking bottles of champagne from Somontano. and savoring donuts, donuts and crepes.

A few hours after the victory was known, the Royal House congratulated the Lecina on Twitter.

This is the story of a collective achievement in which owners, neighbors, administrations and friends of the cause participated, and it is the story of an individual endeavor. Among the hubbub of the town square was missing who did the most to take care of the holm oak in the last decades of its Methuselah existence. Nicolás Arasanz, born in Lecina in the Carruesco house (family name) and died in 2015 at the age of 96. The heiresses of the tree are his daughters, María Jesús, Felisa and Silvia. As girls they were forbidden to climb on it, despite the fact that they were feathers and the holm oak a disproportionate Quercus ilex 16 meters high and 28 meters in crown diameter. It was not a matter of how much they weighed and how much the holm oak could bear. It was a thing, says María Jesús Arasanz, that for her father the tree was a “sacred” heritage.

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The thick bark of the tree.
The thick bark of the tree.© Juan Millás

The holm oak was registered as a singular tree by the Government of Aragon in 1995. Its property continued to belong to the Arasanz family, but the responsibility for its conservation passed to the Administration. This put Nicolás in a situation of some unease. For example, he could no longer prune the branches of the tree, and he was distressed that more and more tourists were coming to look at him. In 1997, the journalist César Palacios visited him to include his holm oak in a series of El País Semanal entitled ‘Trees with history’. Palacios found a man with a “fine sense of humor” and fed up with people climbing the tree to take pictures because they were pulling bark from him. He protested to the reporter: “I smeared the whole trunk with lard, thinking that that way they wouldn’t climb, but even if they get stained, they still go up.” A wide furrow with a bare surface can still be clearly seen in the portentous trunk base of the holm oak, despite the fact that nobody does that anymore, among other things because the day after Palacios’s article was published, the authorities sent workers to fence it with a wooden fence, which is still there. At the time of that report, there was already talk of this oak as the great survivor of the process of exploitation of the oak forests in the area. “It is a miracle that it is preserved. There were others just as big but they disappeared ”, agree in a group of neighbors when we visited the town at the beginning of October. In the postwar period, many had to sell their noblest holm oaks to merchants who wanted that slow-burning wood with high calorific value. Later, Nicolás Arasanz would also receive an offer, according to Palacios: “A boastful charcoal burner assured him that if while he was cutting it, he would go under to eat a chicken, before finishing it he would have to run away so that the oak would not fall on him. ‘A chicken?’ Asks the owner. ‘I got the milk, it gave me time for chicken, nap, stay overnight and come back the next day.’ But just in case, he didn’t want to do the test and refused to sell it. ” To carry out his bravado, the chickadee would have had to cut a log of about seven meters in perimeter in minutes.

The age of the so-called millennial holm oak is uncertain. In fact, although holm oaks can exceed 1,000 years, it is very likely that they will stay below. A technician from the Government of Aragon explains that, according to the consultations they have made with scientists, it could be between four and seven centuries old. To be precise, it would be necessary to resort to a technique of drilling the trunk. They do not consider it. They consider that it would be dangerous for the tree.

After several centuries of life, the oak continues to bear many acorns.
After several centuries of life, the oak continues to bear many acorns.© Juan Millás

Two weeks before the announcement of the European Tree of the Year, Isabel Peñart, Nicolás’s wife, passed away at the age of 95. She was also an advocate for holm oak. In her last years of life, her daughters took her to see her in her place, glued to an era at the entrance of the town, and she, nonagenarian and ailing, looked at her and said: “The chestnut tree is dead.” “No, mom, she’s not dead.” She looked at her and repeated: “The brunette is dead.”

In the family and in the town they do not call her the holm oak but the chestnut tree — the chestnut tree of Carruesco — because it gave large and sweet acorns that looked like chestnuts. With them the cattle were fed. Sometimes people ate them roasted, especially the kids. María Jesús and Felisa Arasanz assure that their acorns have diminished. In general, they say that the holm oak is no longer what it used to be. “Before you would get underneath and with so much leaf that it had you looked up and you couldn’t see the sky,” recalls Felisa. The sisters see it drier, less leafy, with a dull green. They are concerned that tourism is affecting them and they demand from the authorities an organized control of visits, in addition to a sustained, non-punctual care of their environment.

One of the risks it faces is compaction of the soil due to the accumulation of footprints. After winning the award, the holm oak received an average of 150 visits a day in spring and summer, according to Carmen Lalueza, mayor of Bárcabo, the municipality where Lecina is located. A few weeks before being elected European Tree, the precaution was taken to demarcate it with a second perimeter, with a rope supported by poles, to expand the protection space of its root orbit. The mayor and the owners say that visitors tend to be respectful, although from time to time papers or even cigarette butts continue to appear. It gives food for thought. A person who approaches a fabulous thousand-year-old tree, observes it while he smokes and when he finishes smoking he throws the cigarette on the ground and, if anything, steps on the butt.

That is: throwing a cigarette on the ground and, if anything, stepping on the butt in front of a living being – silent, but alive – that may have been there since the Middle Ages, which may have been in its youth during the Black Death of 1348, which may have been a tree was already solid when Ferdinand II of Aragon forged his powerful crown with Isabel I of Castile, which was undoubtedly during the War of Independence while the anti-French raids of El Cantarero, El Pesoduro or El Malcarau were taking place, popular guerrillas at that time in Alto Aragón, the region where the holm oak is found; who was here when the Barcelona-Zaragoza railway arrived and when the Civil War and when in 1995 Nayim scored in extremis from 40 meters the goal that gave Zaragoza the Recopa against Arsenal, the entire Aragon rumbling with joy, and there, second to second, minute by minute, hour after hour, year after year, decade after decade, snow after snow, century after century, the holm oak was undeterred, doing something as simple and as ontologically perfect as staying. That’s it: then you come in and throw a cigarette butt at his feet.

The huge holm oak unfolds in an infinite number of branches.
The huge holm oak unfolds in an infinite number of branches.© Juan Millás

Singular trees are those that are exceptional due to their age, size, shape or other biological or cultural characteristics. In Spain, each autonomous community lists its own. There are currently about 4,100. There are regulations that protect them, local and regional, but in general the attention they receive is usually scarce, according to Susana Domínguez Lerena, president of Forests Without Borders and a prominent promoter of a comprehensive policy for the conservation of these biological wonders and for the sustainable use of their educational-tourism potential. “They are monuments,” he says, “and we should treat them the same as we treat a Romanesque chapel.” In his opinion, Spain suffers from a certain “tree illiteracy” and it is urgent to begin to cultivate sensitivity in this regard.

Already at the end of the 19th century, the Aragonese Joaquín Costa made a defense of the political value of trees. In an article in Yesterday. Journal of Contemporary History, Alberto Sabio, a professor at the University of Zaragoza, writes that he advocated an “arboreal patriotism” in which “respect for the tree would be one more seasoning of the Spanish national regeneration”. In the meetings of the Agricultural Chamber of Alto Aragón, says the historian, Costa cried out: “The holm oaks were wealthy in the form of firewood and charcoal!”

A butterfly 'Vanessa atalanta' photographed in the shade of the oak.
A butterfly ‘Vanessa atalanta’ photographed in the shade of the oak.© Juan Millás

Today the dangers for singular trees are other. “Climate change, because the older the specimens, the more difficult it is for them to adapt to strong and unforeseen variations, and to social and administrative neglect”, analyzes Domínguez Lerena.

The victory of the holm oak, the first Spanish tree to win the European competition, is proof that these trees may attract interest and involve citizens and official bodies. In this case, it was an Aragonese MEP, Isabel García, who gave the idea of ​​looking for a unique tree to go to the contest; then the bordering regions of Somontano and Sobrarbe (that of the holm oak) and the Bárcabo City Council joined forces; and TuHuesca, a public tourist entity, financed the campaign with 36,000 euros. Allied with the Arasanz sisters, at the heart were Enrique Pueyo, mayor of a town in Sobrarbe, Aínsa, and Clara Bosch, manager of the Somontano Wine Route, natives of the area. In the presence of the holm oak, they explain that they understood that raising it would serve to strengthen an inter-regional tourist corridor with two medieval jewels such as Aínsa and the town of Alquézar, and a mountain range, that of Guara, where there are among other things cave paintings and optimal canyons for canyoning.

Bosch and Pueyo remember the enthusiasm they felt the day they won the European award. They are also fond of the moment they won, months before, the Tree of the Year in Spain, organized by Bosques Sin Fronteras. That day the arboreal Aragonese that followed had not yet been unleashed, but they were already plotting their strategy. Upon hearing the news, they went to the tree to plan the next steps. Happy and alone, they ate a sausage sandwich under the shade of Nicolás Arasanz’s holm oak.

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