This summer, I became acquainted with ash trees for the first time. By which I mean that I noticed I was seeing them all the time. I always knew such a tree existed, of course, and was probably very common – think of the number of place names rooted in ash – but somehow they slipped under my radar. Oaks I knew, of course; some others were obvious, like weeping willows or silver birch. Chestnuts I could just about identify, especially in the autumn when their fruits are conveniently scattered about all over the place in parks and on pavements. When I first had the idea for this (admittedly sporadic thus far) series about trees, I was therefore greatly looking forward to expounding my newfound love of the ash.
I was going to write about the attractiveness of their gently cracked, pale grey-brown bark. The way their leaves, such delicate appendages, shimmy and shimmer in the breeze and glow of a summer’s morning, letting a spellbinding tapestry of light permeate the canopy to the woodland floor. How their solid boughs seem so sturdy, timeless, everlasting, stoic survivors rooted deep in the soil even as their leaves arrive and depart in the blink of an eye, hurrying into existence if rain threatens in spring (‘ash before oak, in for a soak’) and rushing down with a great, overnight ‘whump’ at the first hint of cold in autumn.
All these things are still true of the ash, of course, but since ash dieback hit the headlines, my new love is tinged with a little regret. I fear that if I dwell too long on the reasons for admiring this magnificent organism I’ll sink into irreversible tree-hugger’s despair. Every day new infections are announced, and an ever-growing list of doom-mongering academics declares it too late to do much about the fate of the ash in Britain. Some attempts at a positive angle are popping up in the press, but most feel like straw-clutching: a vague hope that British trees will prove more resistant than Danish through being from different genetic stock, or the government’s hope that further spread can somehow be controlled by decisive action. The evidence from continental Europe as to how successful they’re likely to be is not encouraging.
It’s easy to lay blame at the door of government ministers, or ill-considered export and reimport of samplings (done in the name of saving money), and in this case I think both accusations are partially fair. But playing the blame game, the favourite pastime of 21st-century Britons, will not help trees now. The most insightful response to our collective horror at the disease that I’ve read so far is from Sara Maitland in the Guardian, who finishes by writing that ‘knowledge and love need to work hand in hand.’
In light of that, perhaps I am glad that I came to love the ash this year, not for its generic tree status, but for the specific properties that make an ash what it is. It may enhance my sadness if indeed the disease takes hold and a large proportion of ash trees in Britain die. But at least I’m now armed with knowledge enough to recognise an ash and maybe keep a close watch on some local trees. And knowledge enough to sense something of the full ecological impact of an ash-shaped hole in the countryside. Conservation organisations are now rightly sounding the alarm bells about that prospect.
But I can’t help but wonder if the conservation movement in Britain, in which I fully include myself, had previously rather taken its eye off the big picture in 2012. Did we expend so much energy arguing about harassment of a few buzzard nests or the impending death of 5000 out of 350,000 badgers that we failed to react soon enough to an existential threat to 80 million trees? Why is it that smallish issues have infuriated me to the point of firing off letters and emails to DEFRA or turtle dove shooters, but that I didn’t even know about ash dieback until it hit the headlines? Maybe we conservationists come out of this OK, but I firmly believe the best place to start looking for fault is inwards. Self-reflection is important. It’s all very well campaigning to take the specks out of Owen Paterson’s eye. Perhaps it is important to do so, from time to time. But is there a plank of ash stuck in the corner of mine? Next year’s Ash Wednesday might be loaded with greater than normal significance.