Humankind and Ashkind/Shadow over the Ash

Ivy clad Ash tree, Leighton Moss.

Ivy clad Ash tree, Leighton Moss.

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:

Shadow over the Ash

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.

Mature Ash, Limestone Pavement.

Mature Ash, Limestone Pavement.

In the Wake of a Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk.  Photo Kevin Ingleby.

Sparrowhawk on Bird Feeder ( photo by ‘anon’ ).

This morning we’ve had the first snow of the year.  Lovely blobs and lumps falling on to white trees, fields, and hills.  I had to restrain the urge to go out and play though.  I’ve strained some muscles in my back – ones that turn out to be needed when pulling socks on unassisted, or putting weight on my right foot – so I’ve been gritting my teeth and chewing over something that happened on a memorable walk back in late November.

On that day an old friend drove us out to a West Pennine reservoir.  We followed a circular route, and met Nuthatches, Goldcrests, and a juvenile Grey Heron.  By the time we got back to the car park it was mid-afternoon.  The low winter sun was already setting.  I was pleased to have spotted a flock of Fieldfares in the bare branches of some distant trees, when I suddenly noticed a dark ball of ‘energy’, hurtling towards my face.  I ducked instinctively to my left, just in time for a Thrush in full flight, and pursuing Sparrowhawk, to whoosh past my head in a thunder of wing muscle.  The whole thing happened too fast to register much visual detail, but as they vanished into the adjacent wood, I thought I heard a brief death yelp.  Phew!

What to make of this?  After the drama of the moment had subsided, my first thought was that the theme of power and violence had been ‘in the air’ that afternoon.  My friend, for example, had been talking about his research into Conscientious Objectors during the First World War, many of whom were tortured.  Putting my astrological hat on (bear with me), I found that the event had coincided quite closely with a Lunar Eclipse.  My initial reading of this was that the ‘Full Moon’ had drawn the energy of nature to a tidal peak in that location, and that the chance to witness this drama at unusually close quarters was, for me, its particular gift (see footnote).  I wasn’t sure why, but at the very least this felt like a vivid reminder that we humans and birds are part of a greater animate whole.

I then found myself wondering in what sense the birds engaged in that life or death struggle were other-than-human-people?  Irving Hallowell’s term, expressing the Ojibwa notion that any communicative individual, regardless of species, indeed any conversant entity or phenomenon, is a person, has been quite widely adopted by contemporary animists. (see Graham Harvey, 2005 pp17-20).  In the heat of the moment, however, for various reasons that I’m still trying to unpack, I found myself wanting to disqualify those two birds as people, the category that conventionally defines my kind, and think of them instead as other-than-human-beings.  They seemed completely other.  This moment of questioning was, I’m sure, partly due to the gravitational pull of linguistic habit, but the prospect of Westerners en-masse adopting a broader non species-specific understanding of people has never struck me as entirely unproblematic. (pauses to scratch head).  The assumption that people are human is not easily unlearned, so Hallowell’s term tends to be heard as other-than-human-humans.

Graham Harvey points out that the animists he has had conversations with are pragmatic about the need for many other-than-human-people  to eat other people in order to survive.  I have some difficulty, however, with his concluding evocation of a ‘community of life’, in which, as I understand it, the rules of killing and eating are somehow reconciled with an all-encompassing ethic of inter-species dialogue and respectful relationship.  Although many indigenous hunters undoubtedly have a respectful attitude towards their prey, I’m not sure how far the notion of respectful relationship can be extended into the realm of other-than-human predation, where the manner of death often appears cruel, and the predator radically dissociated from the personhood of their prey.  Think, for instance of that Thrush being squeezed and torn to death by the hungry Sparrowhawk.  Scenes like this, when enacted in the domesticated space of private gardens, inspire much vitriol against the species.  Those who describe Sparrowhawks as ‘sneaky killing machines’ often seem unmoved by the abundant ecological evidence that raptors are not responsible for the steep decline in song bird populations.

Sparrowhawk Relaxing After Meal.  Dave Fincham.

Sparrowhawk Relaxing After Meal. Dave Fincham.

To represent, let alone judge, the lives of ‘birds of prey’ solely in terms of these occasionally public and visible moments of killing, makes about as much sense as representing meat-eating humans solely as ‘apes of prey’.  Sparrowhawks are people too, insofar as they are willful, communicative, sociable beings, whose lives include private and tender moments.  Furthermore, given that humans have persecuted birds of prey and poisoned them on an industrial scale (due to the use of organochlorine pesticides between the mid-1950’s and mid-1970’s) causing countless equally horrible deaths, there would be considerable irony in excluding raptors from the category of persons on the basis of their capacity for ‘cruelty’, especially since, for these birds, inflicting mortal injury is an unavoidable by-product of their means of survival.  A quick glance in the rear view mirror of history should suffice to remind us that humans are in no position to claim moral superiority, particularly when it comes to intra-species violence.

Mary Midgley and others have described an exaggerated and markedly gendered sense of difference between ourselves and other species that pervades the political ecology of Western culture.  But there has also been a paradoxical tendency to naturalise patriarchal violence.   ‘Man the hunter’ sets out to control wild nature, but is also said to be predisposed towards aggression, competitiveness, and territoriality.  Bob Connell writes that despite a considerable body of research evidence refuting biological determinism, ‘the endocrine theory of masculinity, like brain-sex theory, has passed into journalistic common sense’.  We don’t need to believe in a simple overarching schema of progress, surely, to acknowledge the importance of challenges to patriarchal culture, and the associated pandemic of violence, that in terms of scale, motivation, and function, differs markedly from predation in the natural world.  One of my initial reservations about referring to members of other species as people was that this might encourage misplaced identification with predators, and thereby undermine attempts to foster a culture of non-violence amongst men.

Advertisement for binoculars encourages identification with Sparrowhawk

Advertisement for Swarovski binoculars encourages identification with Sparrowhawk.

The devotion of naturalists towards the objects of their affection can be something to behold.  Sparrowhawk-phile Dave Culley has constructed a 50 metre tunnel and 38 foot tower in order to film a pair that share ‘Sparrowhawk Island’ with him, and feed images back to monitors in his house.  This extraordinary exercise in high-tech surveillance has produced footage of hitherto unknown aspects of Sparrowhawk life, including a possible courtship dance performed by the male.  I say possible, as various nay sayers have claimed that the clip only shows a wash and brush up routine.  I hope they’re wrong, but either way the male Sparrowhawk undermines traditional associations between Hawks and military masculinity (the Hawk fighter jet; the Hawk of May, all-seeing bird of solar light, linked with the English patriotic warrior St. George, clearly a Falcon in modern ornithological terms, not one of the secretive Hawks).  In all birds of prey the female is significantly larger than the male, but in the case of the Sparrowhawk the weight difference is greatest.  So great that, according to Ian Newton, males are an ideal sized prey item for females, and quite often killed by them.  We might expect him to be circumspect around her, then!  In the ‘courtship display’ he bows, picks at his talons, fluffs himself up, and fans his undertail coverts, giving the impression of a miniature burlesque dancer.  Or perhaps he’s just sprucing himself up for her benefit. Sparrowhawk#p0088t0d

From a human perspective, another potential downside to importing a wider conception of personhood into contemporary Western discourse is that, rather than extending agency, subjectivity, and rights, to other species, it could open the floodgates to a sentimental anthropomorphism that denies the ‘engulfing difference of biodiversity’.  Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller write that ecological difference confronts us with the possibility of encounter with an infinity of non-human others.  Quite apart from opening up a mind boggling array of ethical dilemmas, this teeming multiplicity and vertiginous intensity of difference is fundamental to the dynamism of living systems.  Val Plumwood, in her critique of deep ecology, famously informed by the experience of becoming prey to a Saltwater Crocodile, makes a similar point.  Those of us working against the grain of hyper-separation from nature should be careful not to overcompensate by exaggerating similarity and empathy. ‘We must attain solidarity with the other in their difference’.  In the concluding chapter of his study of Yukaghir hunters in northeastern Siberia, entitled Taking Animism Seriously, Rane Willerslev also stresses the power to differentiate.  ‘What defines power in the Yukaghir world, where all beings continually mirror and echo one another, and where the various boundaries between self and other are permeable and easily crossed, is the ability not to confuse analogy with identity.’

We humans are people in the sense that we have a pronounced capacity for reflexivity, and for engaging in purposive social and ecological change.  As a collective we live far more differently from even our recent ancestors than do Sparrowhawks.  There’s much to debate here, but we, surely, are people in some very particular ways.

Returning to my close encounter, the astrology of that Lunar eclipse may have held the key to avoiding the horrible sciatica I’ve been struggling with over recent weeks.  To appreciate this you would need to step beyond the dualistic (subject/object splitting) epistemology of scientific rationality, and acknowledge a universe of meaningful contingency.  Geoffrey Cornelius writes ‘where the omen comes unbidden, the gods speak in a space of their choosing, blessing or touching events … ‘.  Such omens have participatory significance.  The eclipse chart pointed unmistakeably towards my natal Mars (the eclipsed Moon falling only 19 minutes of arc from ‘square’ that point).  Amongst other things, Mars signifies muscles and all the stuff we use them for.  Yet I was resistant to reading the event as an omen.  I’m not keen on the tendency to see an omen in every puff of wind, but there could hardly have been a more dramatic way of drawing my attention to the eclipse.  I should also say, by the way, that I’m not suggesting that those birds were cognisant of the potential human meaning of the strange blessing they delivered.

It so happens that at the time of a Lunar eclipse, intuitive embodied knowledge tends to get overshadowed by rationality and purpose.  Alas, I didn’t pick up the cue, let alone work effectively with it.  But at least I’ve enjoyed thinking through some of the implications of that dramatic moment.  Are Sparrowhawks people?  I think I might reserve other-than-human-people for times when I want to emphasise their similarity to ourselves, and opt for other-than-human-beings (or non-human others) when focusing on our differences.

B.T 23/1/13.


Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters;  Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, University of California Press, 2007.

On Sparrowhawk ecology see the RSPB’s page ( June 2011):

Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst and Co, 2005.

Bob Connell, Masculinities (second edition), Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ian Newton, The Sparrowhawk, T. and A. D. Poyser, 1986/2011 and The Sparrowhawk, Shire, 1987.

Kearns, L. and Keller, C.  Ecospirit, Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, Fordham University Press, 2007.

Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture; The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, 2002. also, her essay: Being Prey ( available online as a PDF ).

ref the Lunar eclipse, see Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology, Wessex Astrologer, 2003 ( e.g. pp132-133 ) for an account of astrology as divination, including unbidden omens.  The chart included a Mars-Pluto conjunction, these being the two most likely candidates in any astrological picture of predation, and highlighted Chiron, the ‘wounded healer’, opposing natal Mars.  As Chiron closed to around one degree opposite natal Mars, around New Year, sciatica struck.

Horoscope for the Lunar Eclipse of 28/11/12 set for Bolton.

Horoscope for the Lunar Eclipse of 28/11/12 set for Bolton.

Comments can be sent by e-mail using the contact form at the bottom of the home page.  Just say which bit you’d like included.

E-mail messages:

“Just read your description of dramatic encounter.  Astonishing. You must be a magnet!”  Chris Drinkwater.

“The sparrowhawk piece is interesting. It’s like the appreciation of different cultures, taken to an extreme. Can we see through the eyes of a hawk? some people claim such experiences but it’s not something I’ve ever known. we can imagine it but that’s still from a human perspective. I suppose it’s a matter of appreciating their aliveness or our common animality.”  Jo Pacsoo.