"Delicta maiorem immeritus lues?"
Ode to Hopea sangal


Lamentation of a great botanist
In memory of the Hopea sangal that was felled most tragically in Changi on 20 Nov 2002, I would like to share with you some heartfelt words of the late Prof. E.J.H. Corner who lamented the loss of the 'fabulous giants - the most majestic trees a national heritage' in his monumental work, The Wayside Trees of Malaya.

'When we look down upon the lowland forest or gaze up into its vaults, we see the canopy of dipterocarps whose sombre crowns compose very largely the ocean of trees that once covered the Malay Peninsula. This glorious spectacle has been whittled away in the course of civilization, decimated this century by commercial logging, and now, with urban demand for agriculture, it is in danger of disappearing.

Vast trunks thunder along highways to saw-mills, apparently from nowhere, and revenue accrues, but where can the citizen, the biologist, or the visitor see these fabulous giants - the most majestic trees that any land produces? One would have thought that such a national heritage should have been guarded zealously. There remain, fortunately, some tracts of this lowland forest preserved in catchment areas, national parks, forest reserves and game reserves, though, as shortage of timber increases, they may be deprived.' - Prof. E.J.H. Corner, Wayside Trees of Malaya, pages 233 to 234.

I sigh when I think of whether we might be deprived further.

Delicta maiorem immeritus lues
And as I pondered over the loss of this rare old tree during the past weeks, I came across a fascinating book 'Carbon Dioxide and Plant Responses' by David R Murray who synthesized an astonishing array of scientific work by so many scientists across the world to highlight how serious carbon dioxide accumulation is and will be for the global environment in the future. This book opened my eyes to many other forms of the Greenhouse Effect that I did not know existed.

There are a few poignant lines that he wrote which I would like to share with you. I found my own sentiments resonating in his plea. You might all be feeling the same way too.

"Another thing we must do is refrain from cutting down the trees we still have, in forests that globally represent less than 10% of original (pre-historic) forest cover. Living trees are not valued highly enough. We risk ushering in irreversible deleterious consequences for the future of our own species, as well as all others. Our descendents' motto will be Delicta maiorem immeritus lues - Undeservedly you suffer for the sins of your forebears (Horace). The motto I prefer is Capimus sed tradimus - we receive, but we pass on." - David R. Murray (School of Horticulture, University of Western Sydney)

Delicta maiorem immeritus lues? Living trees are not valued highly enough? 

The aftermath, the questions and the future
Our acquaintance with Hopea sangal was brief. It was discovered on 31st August 2002 but felled most tragically on 20th Nov 2002. Within that period, the tree was included in a public feedback to URA (copied to National Parks Board) on 12th Sep 2002, reported in Zaobao (Chinese newspapers) on 29th Sep 2002 and reported again in TODAY (English newsapers) on 4th Oct 2002. Many came to know and admire her in Changi.

Like us, future generations will no doubt look back to ask the same disturbing questions as to why and how such a tragic event should come to pass. And they may be asking this too - 'Have they failed us?'

At the very least, they may be reconciled with the fact that in the aftermath of the tree's felling, many caring people wrote to the press or spoke up to voice their concerns. Some have even suggested turning the felled tree trunks into a conservation-art monument to be displayed in a public place.

Many of you will agree with me that this is an excellent idea. It could serve as a constant reminder for us about nature's vulnerability, mankind's responsibility to cherish nature, and the importance of nature conservation. By doing so, we can ensure that the tree did not die in vain.

If we can generate some positive outcomes from this sad event, perhaps future generations will be less harsh in their judgment towards us. One day, when they gaze upon this monument or conservation icon, they will come to appreciate that although their predecessors were unable to pass on the tree to them, they did make a noble effort to pass on the valuable lessons learnt, as well as their values and aspirations for a better and greener world to them.

Capimus sed tradimus? Should we not start now?

By Joseph Lai, botanist


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Changi Heritage
Felling of Hopea sangal, 20 Nov 2002

Photo by Tan Beng Chiak