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The Chudobín Pine, which has shared the joys and sorrows of the locality for 350 years, is the European Tree of the year

A bit short with a slightly twisted trunk, similar to a slightly grown bonsai, sometimes overlooks the Svratka river and the Vír dam from the top of a rocky promontory, during the spring thaw or when the water of the basin reaches the maximum level, the cliff at its feet is submerged and only it remains on the surface towering on a small island of a couple of square meters. We are talking about the “flooded village guardian”, a 350-year-old Scots pine, also known as the “Chudobín pine”, which was elected “European tree of the year”.

The competition, perhaps little known in Italy, was born in 2011 and is organized by the EPA (Environmental Partnership Association), a consortium of six foundations from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia that supports projects aimed at protecting the environment and involvement of local communities.

Before talking about the competition and the stages that the “guardian” had to overcome to win the title, let’s tell its story. It is thanks to its vicissitudes and special position that it was able to fully participate in the competition, as the main requirement is not the beauty, the size or the age of the tree but its history and relationship with life and work of the locals where it stands.

We are in the Vysočina region, in a valley crossed by the Svratka river. In the second half of the seventeenth century a seed carried by the wind ended up in a crack of that promontory that dominated the settlement of Hamry and the village of Chudobín, the “flooded village” which in the 1950s was sacrificed by the communist government to allow the construction of the Vír dam. The pine is all that remains of that town and has witnessed the painful destinies of those who had to leave their homes, fields and loved ones. Among them were also the grandmother and the parents of Milan Peňáz, forest engineer, collaborator of the Academy of Sciences and well-known ichthyologist who lives in Brno but has roots in Chudobín and together with the municipalities of Vír, Dalečín and Bystřice nad Pernštejn submitted the candidacy of the tree to the competition.

“My mother was from Chudobín and I spent my childhood there”, says 87-year-old Peňáz who remembers the difficult climbs as a boy on that promontory, not far from the charcoal burner and a cave that during the wars gave refuge to the citizens, the Vír railway and Hamry’s textile machines, “the gamekeeper’s house, the fire station, the two wooden walkways on the river”, the upper weir which was the favorite spot for swimmers and where in winter there was a ski run which during the protectorate hosted important races.

The era of the First Republic was the happiest period for the village, a holiday area that attracted many tourists, especially from Brno. The guides of 1935 reported that Chudobín was surrounded by woods with a large number of mushrooms, strawberries and raspberries, it counted about twenty house numbers, a mill and the U Juříků restaurant with its garden shaded by lime trees. A legend was associated with the pine. It was said that in the night a devil sat at its feet and played the violin. It was probably the howl of the strong winds that always blew over the valley crossed by the Svratka.

The idyllic life did not last long, and the plan was to build a dam to protect the valley from frequent floods. In the original project Chudobín was supposed to remain in place, but in 1946 the plan changed, it was decided to raise the height of the dam without however foreseeing the construction of a new village. The forest was cut down, the banks deforested, the houses demolished, and more than 150 people moved, many to Dalečín and neighboring municipalities. With the shallow water you can still see the remains that lie on the bottom of the lake. The holiday was allowed until 1986, after which the Vír dam became a reservoir that ensures drinking water and also supplies a considerable part of Moravia.

“The lake is beautiful, but I don’t know what I would give to see the unforgettable landscape crossed by the river”, confesses Peňáz. What contributes to the charm of the place is certainly also the pine tree, which has remained in harmony with the surrounding landscape. “For me it’s a green lighthouse on the rock. From a distance it may look like a bonsai but in reality, the trunk circumference is 177 centimeters and it is about 14 metres high”, he continues and explains that the idea of applying for the competition is the result of long chats with friends. It was presented as an example of vitality and tenacity that “resists the not indifferent oscillations of the water surface, counteracts the winds, the heat and the summer drought”. The current drought, indicated as the worst in the last five centuries, is a plague that since 2015 is putting a strain on the entire Czech soil and especially the forest vegetation, to the extent that according to Martin Kopecký of the botanical department of the Czech Academy of Sciences many trees risk not surviving this year, especially in regions already afflicted by the bark beetle, the parasite that has left them bare of conifers.

It therefore stands as a symbol of resistance to human and climatic impact, and the pine was first one of the candidates for “Strom roku” (“The tree of the year”), the national version of the competition organized by the Nadace Partnerství foundation. The idea originated in Brno in 2000 and after two early local editions, from 2002 it has become national.

The pine, which was given the nickname “Queen of the flooded valley”, because pine in Czech is called “borovice” and is a feminine noun translated as “guardian” in other languages, was able to count immediately on strong support and a large number of votes due to the club of Brno bonsai enthusiasts, enthusiastic about the candidacy. On the other hand, who appeared to be less enthusiastic was the state body of Povodí Moravy that manages the dam, even to the extent of demand its revocation, and probably feared an invasion by onlookers. In the protected area of the reservoir, entry to the public is in fact prohibited and the tree, often the subject of works by artists and photographers, can be observed only from afar, from the narrow path that, on foot or by bicycle, is leading to Vír.

Finally, on 3 October, on a gala evening at the Brno Planetarium, the pine was named 18th “Tree of the Year” with 4,394 votes against the 2,506 of the candidate in second place, the Žižka oak which is located in the park of the Náměšť nad Oslavou castle, once the summer headquarters of the presidents, also in Vysočina. In addition to the prize, which consists of an arboreal treatment, the winner participates in the European edition of the competition for which traditionally people vote for the whole month of February; from the fourth day the pine was at the top of the ranking. On 17 March the EPA made the results official, this year online due to the health emergency: out of 285,000 votes, 47,226 were destined for the “guardian” of Chudobín, almost double those of the second placed “Daruvar ginkgo”, in Croatia. Third place went to Russia’s “Lonely poplar” while Italy was represented by the “Oak Vallonea of Tricase”, in the province of Lecce, with 700 years of history and a crown of 700 square meters, also called “oak of a hundred knights” because according to legend it sheltered Frederick II of Swabia and the knights of his army who had been surprised by a storm.

The people of Vír believed so much in victory that they prepared stamps with the title of winner in advance; among other things, their pine is the first tree in the Czech Republic to win the European competition. The mayor of Vír, Ladislav Stalmach, is also proud of the citizens of the Bystřice region who have made a commitment to plant a tree for every vote received, including in the area surrounding the Vír dam. As for the “guardian of Chudobín”, we hope he will continue to be able to defeat the pollution, the insects and the vagaries of our time for many years to come.

by Sabrina Salomoni