Tolkien and Trees


The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…







092 A Mattress Made of Sand


Photo courtesy of Michael Garcia

Stephanie Wing-Garcia and her husband Michael Garcia devised an innovative solution to Stephanie’s crippling back pain: they handcrafted a bed made out of sand. We visited Stephanie and Michael in their Los Angeles home and tried out their bed. Stephanie tells us the story of how, while spending a sleepless night toughing it out on a hard floor, she had a flash of inspiration. That inspiration would heal her back and lead them to start their own company: The Ultimate Earth Bed.

Our conversation also ranges over the history of how people used to sleep, from ancient Rome to the patent on the first mattress in 1850, the ecological consequences of conventional mattresses and the connection between the Earth Bed and barefoot running.

For those of you who can’t listen, we also posted about them yesterday.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.


Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed



The Ultimate Earth Bed: A Mattress Made of Sand

sand bed in bedroom

Michael and Stephanie’s sand bed.  Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed

In 2013 I wrote a post called “A Homemade Mattress?” It was just an off-the-cuff complaint fest on my part, but the response to it revealed a vast population of deeply dissatisfied bed users out there in Internetland. It remains one of our most visited posts, and the lengthy comment section is filled with tales of people who, in desperation, have made, modified or improvised their beds in an effort to avoid the mattress industry entirely.

It seems many of us are sick of sleeping on these expensive, over-engineered contraptions stuffed full of petroleum-based foam and doused with fire retardants. Worse, these beds are not even all that comfortable, or don’t maintain their firmness for long, and just make the whole experience a little more squalid, when we can’t stand them any longer, we have to drag them to the curb and send them off to clog the landfills for the next few hundred years. No wonder so many of us search for alternatives, from hammocks to Japanese style futons to homemade straw mattresses.

Recently a friend and frequent Root Simple commenter who goes by the handle “P” here, sent us an intriguing note. Like us, she lives in the Los Angeles area, and like us, she’s been obsessed with the idea of a mattress alternative for a while. Then she got a lead on an exciting bed option, and she shared it with us, saying basically, “I know this couple that you have to meet. They’ve made a bed out of sand!”

So we went to meet Michael Garcia and Stephanie Wing-Garcia and their sand mattress. They live just a few minutes from our house, in a big, sunny apartment full of beautiful things–and they sleep on a king sized bed which consists of a low wooden platform, a pair of twin-sized canvas mattress casings filled with ground white marble sand, which in turn are topped by an inch thick natural latex mat and a layer of sheepskin.

Version 2

Peeling back the layers: platform, 3″ deep sand filled mattress, 1″ natural latex and sheep skin on top (not pictured).  Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed.

They love their bed. The idea for it came them in a flash of inspiration, and it has changed their lives. Stephanie credits the bed with healing the excruciating chronic back pain which she’d been suffering from for seven years.

It’s a great story, and they’re great people– which is why we recorded them for our podcast. They will be on tomorrow’s episode, so stay tuned for more! (The podcast is now up–here’s the link)

But in brief, and as sort of a preview, here’s few points which we’ll be covering in more detail in the podcast:

  1. Sleeping on a firm surface is a well known solution for tricky backs. Many people find that after an (admittedly uncomfortable) period of adjustment, the body seems to stretch and realign against the resistance offered by the firm surface. Using sand as a substrate provides an incredibly firm sleeping surface which is just a tad more forgiving than sleeping on the floor. The top padding provide insulation and a little bit of cushioning for the joints.
  2. The clean, dry crushed marble they’ve sourced makes a bed that is non-toxic, inflammable, allergenic, bug-resistant and deeply recyclable. If the mattress casing can be washed or patched. The sand can be washed or returned to the earth. It is an elemental bed. And theoretically it would last a lifetime.
  3. They’ve found a side-effect to sleeping on the crushed marble sand is that it seems to be curiously grounding and sleep-inducing. They fall asleep fast and sleep hard. I will say that I noticed that while I was sitting on the bed during our visit. Though I was drinking caffeine and conducting an interview–things which would ordinarily have me jacked up like a Chihuahua–I felt like I could just stretch out and take a a quick nap right there.
  4. Erik and I are intrigued with this idea, and are tempted to compare sleeping on this surface to barefoot running. (We’ve done the barefooting, but haven’t tried a whole night on the mattress.)  Both may be uncomfortable at first, but they build resilience, and perhaps, healthier bodies over time. In both cases, we have been told we have to buy complicated “supportive” contraptions made of cushioning foam and polyester fabric to have a good run, or a good night’s sleep. More and more we’re questioning whether that is a good idea.
  5. Michael and Stephanie loved their bed so much that they started to make sand beds for friends and family. The response has been so positive that they’ve started a company called The Ultimate Earth Bed, so that now they can share their idea with you, too.









Saturday Tweets: Labor Day Weekend Edition

Lost in Light: A Short Film on Light Pollution

Via BoingBoing, a beautifully shot video by Sriram Murali showing the damage done by city lights.

Shot mostly in California, the movie shows how the view gets progressively better as you move away from the lights. Finding locations to shoot at every level of light pollution was a challenge and getting to the darkest skies with no light pollution was a journey in itself. Here’s why I think we should care more. The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings – more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be. How compassionate with fellow species on Earth and how one with Nature we’d feel.

This is an easy problem to fix. On the political front we could start by getting rid of billboards like the mayor of São Paulo did. On the technological front, there are a lot of lessons to learn from the lighting designers of the High Line in New York.