If humans were to disappear from the planet, nature would take over the place in no time at all. It has been calculated that concrete buildings would last around a hundred years or so; steel would last longer, but not much: the world’s great suspension bridges would come crashing down after three centuries. Slowly but surely, Mother Earth will swallow it all up. In the garden of Ireland’s oldest law school, the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, a London plane tree has been slowly, over the course of decades, eating up a wrought iron bench located near the south entrance to the school. For now, the institution’s gardeners are not coming to the rescue of the unfortunate bench. What is more, they would not be allowed to even if they wanted: Ireland’s Tree Council has included this plane on its list of the country’s protected trees.

Photo by William Murphy CC

Nobody knows how old this famous exemplar of Platanus acerifolia is. Many sources estimate around 80 years, but the large size of the trunk might indicate an older tree. The dates we do know are that of the construction of the present Society of King’s Inns building, begun in 1800 (the institution is much older, dating back to 1541); and the bench itself, which is from the early 19th century, the same time when this kind of plane began to be planted on a large scale in Dublin and other Irish and British cities. This hybrid plane became a favourite in grimy towns after the industrial revolution because of its resistance to pollution.

Photo by William Murphy CC

This particular plane, and the bench which was placed under it (or perhaps it was the other way around, and the tree was planted by the seat), have a kind of fatal attraction: a slow-motion relationship between the two that has been going on for decades. At one time, the young tree must have touched the back of the bench. Perhaps the wind wore the trunk away at this point, and the plant started to grow around the bench. It was a nibble that would turn into a bite, and then a hearty mouthful. The King’s Inns’ plane tree is one that seems to be defying the modern world. Tolkien would have enjoyed the image, and Darwin would have given a knowing smile.

Cover by William Murphy CC