Thursday, April 22, 2004

Freedom Tree

Sad news today:

Basques mourn death of 'freedom tree'

From The Times

THE Tree of Guernica, a symbol of freedom for Spain's Basque population, is dead.

The famous oak survived the Spanish Civil War bombing of the town made famous by Picasso's eponymous painting, but finally succumbed to, of all things, a heatwave.

News of a tree's demise rarely prompts obituaries in national newspapers, but that happened in Spain yesterday as Basques faced up to an uncertain political - and treeless - future.

The 146-year-old oak was at least the third known Tree of Guernica, in a tradition that stretches back to the Middle Ages.

Beneath their mighty boughs successive kings of Spain have had to swear the fueros - a centuries- old pact that guarantees Basque fiscal and political autonomy from the Spanish crown.

Basque political nationalism draws its strength from the tree's leafy shade, and the prime minister of the autonomous Basque region is sworn into office with a hand on its trunk, reciting: "Humble before God, standing on the Basque land ..."

And there lies the problem.

The change in the Spanish Government this month has raised the prospect of a difficult renegotiation of Basque freedoms from Madrid, in which the nationalists seek independence in all but name.

The Basques' more romantic supporters will worry that without their tree the talks will swing in favour of the Socialists in Madrid.

El Pais newspaper said the next months would be traumatic for the Basques, because it would take that long to remove the dead tree and replace it with a healthy one.

The recently deceased tree, according to an analysis of its rings, took root in 1858.

In April 1937, George Steer, a correspondent for The Times of London, took shelter under its branches as Guernica fell to a blitz by Nazi warplanes clandestinely supporting the rebel fascist general Francisco Franco.

Describing the devastating effect of the German bombers, Steer reported: "The whole town of Guernica was soon in flames ... but the famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was untouched."

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