Shadow over the Ash
I’m pleased to be able to re-publish an article written by my friend John Billingsley in response to the imminent threat to the U.K’s Ash trees from Chalara fraxinea, otherwise known as Ash Dieback. John is a folklorist and editor of the long running ‘earth mysteries’/neo-antiquarian magazine Northern Earth, where the article first appeared in issue 133, Spring 2013. His tribute to a much loved tree reviews the lore and folk traditions surrounding the species. Click on the title below to open a pdf of John’s article:
I’ve written some accompanying comments on the ecology of the disease and human responses, based on the writings of Richard Mabey and other naturalists:
Humankind and Ashkind
“The Ashgrove how graceful / how plainly ’tis speaking …”.
A huge landmark Ash tree, double the height of the house next to it, presides over our hillside. By day corvids chatter and curse amongst its branches. By night tawny owls announce their presence, fluting or ker-wicking into the darkness. I’ve occasionally been privileged to hear a pair of owls performing a passionate duet from the upper storeys. Ash Keys are a favourite food of the bullfinches that live nearby. Having walked beneath hir boughs (an ash tree often has both male and female branches and flowers) for almost forty years, I find it very hard to imagine the hillside without this lofty neighbour. But its something I’m likely to have face in the not too distant future.
Because ash trees don’t cast dense shade they have been well described as convivial. Ashwellthorpe, a rare and beautifully named fragment of one thousand year old ash woodland in Norfolk has early purple orchids and carpets of bluebells in Spring and white admiral butterflies in July. Ash bark provides a suitable habitat for mosses and lichens. Twenty eight species of invertebrates are said to be monophagus on Ash, meaning that they eat nothing else.(1 and 2) When Chalara fraxinea was found in mature ash trees here, local naturalists felt devastated.
We are expected to lose most of the U.K’s 80 million Ash trees due to the relentless advance of this mutated fungus, though estimates of its impact vary. Richard Mabey cautions against catastrophising Ash die back however. The Great Storm of 1986 reduced woodlands across the south of England to matchwood. Although it looked and felt apocalyptic at the time this turned out to be ‘the most important event in British nature conservation since the war’. It taught us that cataclysmic events are entirely natural, and that, left to its own devices, woodland recovers. Where conservationists attempted to clear up the debris, forest soil was scraped away making it very difficult for new trees to grow. Where the wood was left alone, its now very difficult to find any evidence of that storm. Mabey argues that Ash die back is another such opportunity for humans to take another approach.
In Poland between ten and twenty five per cent of ash trees have some degree of immunity, and in Lithuania ten per cent have survived the infection for eight years. Ash trees in the U.K may be more genetically diverse. Mabey points out that ash trees have been evolving for millions of years, and are clever. We may be able to ‘tag along with the trees own cleverness’ and plant out resistant varieties. He urges caution even in relation to this tactic however, and rails against the folly of relying on tree planting as a way of revitalising woodland. We have, in effect, been planting out ‘battery saplings’, and in the process ‘have made many of our woods as conducive to virulent epidemics as hospital wards’. The trees are too genetically uniform, too even aged, too densely packed’.(3 and 4)
Oliver Rackham, whose name my naturalist friends mention in hushed tones, indicts the commodification of Nature, and consequent globalisation of tree diseases and pests, as ‘the greatest threat to the world’s trees and forests’. The W.T.O are not about to let anyone bolt the stable door however.(5) According to plant disease specialist Dr Stephen Woodward (quoted in the Guardian piece) the chances that Chalara fraxinea was carried to the U.K by the wind are minuscule.
In striking contrast to most media coverage, Alan Lockton, from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, points out that disease creates diversity in both habitats and the gene pool of species, and says that ‘some infected trees may eventually die’ whilst others will recover, before dying from other causes. He speculates that some 50% of mature ash will die over the next 100 years, a ‘turnover’ only sightly higher than normal. Furthermore, since Ash has greatly increased in England and in lowland areas of Wales and Scotland over the last 50 years, in part due to the absence of Elm trees, ‘a slight reduction of Ash is unlikely to do much harm’.(6) Time will tell whether his optimistism is justified.
Chalara fraxinea is undoubtedly a serious concern in limestone areas, such the White Peak, where ash is the dominant species. It would be a tragedy if the miniaturised mature ash trees that grow tenaciously in the limestone pavements of northern England are lost. Landmark trees in urban areas, such as my huge ash neighbour, are unlikely to be allowed to decline in peace once weakened by the disease. It is, of course, the loss of these familiar trees that will hurt most.
As an animist I wonder whether Richard Mabey’s understandable impatience with anthropomorphic responses to trees is simply a green version of the culturally dominant denial of the possibility of respectful relationship with them as persons? He complains that ‘we hug them, plant them as civic gestures and acts of reparation, give them pet names’, and treat them as if they were ‘vulnerable children or biddable machines’. In an unstable world we appropriate them as symbols of security, continuity, and peacefulness, then ‘when this cosy relationship is turned upside down we are shipwrecked, wondering if we have been bad guardians …’. Mabey is equally caustic about tree planting, describing it as a painless ritual of atonement for the devastation our species has wreaked. We are culturally unwilling to acknowledge that trees are resilient, dynamic, and evolving vegetation. In ten year’s time the ash trees near his house will have metamorphosed into ‘complex catacombs of decaying wood full of beetles and woodpecker probings’. It seems to me that, in this description, trees have regained their autonomy, their otherness, at the expense of any sense that we humans might be able to relate to them as persons? A cursory glance at some of the many books on working with non-human allies suggests that ‘we’ contemporary Westerners find this a very difficult balance to strike.
The Norfolk naturalist filmed talking about the prospect of losing the mature ash trees at Ashwellthorpe stands with his hand resting on the trunk of a huge ash tree throughout the interview. His gesture says what he, as a spokesperson for a public body, is unable to put into words. Faced with the prospect of seeing trees that we love dying and/or being cut down, we may well need to grieve and rage (especially if the cause turns out to be human greed or stupidity) in safety. Only then, perhaps, will we be able to think and act clearly? Prompted by Richard Mabey’s observations I’ve been ruminating about at my own identification with familiar and much loved trees, not least some that I planted.
Does talking about trees (and other non-human beings) as persons encourage us to project our all-too-human emotions on to them? Why is it so painful to let go of significant trees? Are some of us better at relating to other-than-human beings than to other human people? How different are the challenges involved? Are women better than men at these kinds of relationships? Animism raises so many questions. Personally I feel much less confident about relating to trees (or stones, or the land) than to birds or animals, but think it would be unhelpfully reductive to generalise about all close relationship with them in terms of fantasy, delusion, or child-like regression. We arguably need to be as careful about how we enter into relationships with other than human people as we are, hopefully, about relating to other human people. Let’s not foreclose the possibility of deep emotional connection and intimate dialogue with both!
1) Patrick Barkham, The Ash Tree Crisis, a Disaster in the Making, Guardian, 30/10/12.
2) Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, Ash Dieback, 2012 (consulted 9/9/13).
3) Richard Mabey, video clip: Ash Dieback, Richard Mabey on What we Should Do,2012.
4) Richard Mabey,Our Ash Trees are Dying, Don’t Despair, Catastrophes are Natural Events, New Statesman, 7th June 2013.
5) Oliver Rackham, Ash Disease, the Present State of Knowledge and Ignorance, 9/11/2012.
6) Alan Lockton, Ash Dieback, Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Updated 25/11/2012.