November 17, 2012

Ashes to ashes

I've been dimly aware, for the last few weeks, of what I haven't been writing. I've posted a poem, and some photos. And I wrote a wildly optimistic and disingenuous piece about the ways in which trees can be immortal. But all the while, I wasn't writing about something.

Ash dieback, of course: Chalara fraxinae. What is there that I can say, what is there to add to the statistics, the hand-wringing, the blame and the lovely, anguished threnodies crowding the airwaves and flying along fibre-optic cables in brute ones and zeros?

I have no memory of elms, but the thought of their almost total loss fills me with sadness. When they began to die, ash trees – a clever, pioneer native, a prolific self-seeder – stepped in to fill the gap they left in our woods and hedgerows; they did the same after the hurricane decimated parts of our landscape in 1987.

After our native oaks, themselves under severe threat from acute oak decline, ash trees support more forms of life than any other British species. They are also unique in their ability to change sex at will, or even have male and female branches on the same tree. Their close-grained wood is hard, weathers well and is useful for things like tool handles. They coppice productively, and their pinnate leaves give a very particular kind of shifting, dappled shade.

They are part of our cultural heritage, our collective memory. 'Oak before ash...' goes the saying; will future generations even know what it means? In medieval times ash trees were thought to have the power to heal the deformed and stricken; further back, the 'world tree' of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, was an ash, and Odin hung himself from its branches.

And there is a lone ash at the heart of my book, Clay. My reasons for putting it in were obscure to me, as the things one draws up from deep places sometimes are. In plot terms its role is minor: each of the main characters sees it, or knows it, or touches it for luck. But its importance to me, when I was writing the book, was enormous. It became, in some mysterious way, an anchor around which the rest of the book could bob and ride.

And this is why ash dieback breaks my heart: a sense that while they may be of little import to most of us on the surface, what we lose when they die runs deeper than we know. Many people – most, perhaps – couldn't identify an ash; and I've heard some comment blithely that surely other trees will just grow, it won't matter, not in the long term. Do we need the old stories, long disproved, any more? And will a landscape without them, but richer in, say, sycamores, actually feel impoverished? They're all just trees, after all.

It matters. Along with their unique physical presence in our landscape, along with the ecological benefits they bring as a major native species, there is a pool of myth and folklore and wisdom and learning and allusion at stake; a deep collective history which is our birthright and which, more than ever right now, can sustain us. Will the next generation even be able to call ash trees to mind – the shape their branches make in winter, the sticky black buds in spring, the sound their leaves make in a warm breeze, the feel of ash keys in the palm – as my parents could the elm?

It's not been proved whether chalara came to the UK as a result of EU imports, or whether the fungal spores arrived here on the wind. Neither do we know if climate change, poor land management or our dependence on pesticides helped its spread – or whether any of our islands' trees may prove to have resistant genes. There is so much we still don't understand.

What seems clear for now, though, is that there is nothing we can do but wait. In spring, many of these lovely trees, in our gardens, hedgerows, woods and city parks, will fail, for the first time, fully to take leaf. We will then lose them; slowly, season by season, but in our lifetime.