The Light, & the Dying of the Ash Trees.
A poignant, devastating light is falling on the ash trees, illuminating their grey skeletons. The sheer scale of the loss of them, has become obvious and widespread this year. There are ghosts in the woods.
Chalara ash dieback was officially identified in the UK in 2012. The fungal spores that cause it probably blew in across the channel, although its advance was accelerated by imported, infected nursery stock. The fungus co-exists with its host species of ash tree in East Asia, where the trees have long since evolved to cope.
Ash is our third most abundant tree and most common hedgerow tree. Whole woods will be lost, and the landscape changed forever. The economic cost alone is forecast at £15bn. Our history, culture and human progress is lashed to the ash trees. On an open fire it is the most reliable wood to burn for steady, sustaining warmth; especially if it has the natural firelighters of ‘cramp balls’ or King Alfred’s cake fungus attached. But it is a tree that we will all, most likely, have held in our hands at some point. Strong, flexible and shock-resistant, before steel, it was used to make boats, wheels and ploughs, and all manner of hand held tools, sports equipment and implements – it still is.
High on the downs, where the view stretches full counties, it is suddenly easy to pinpoint swathes of dying trees, like grey smoke drifting from bonfires. Their canopies were noticeably light this year and the black-spotted, curled leaves have fallen early, leaving the trees mid-winter bare. Some still clutch bunches of brown seed keys.
The grey, deeply fissured bark of one great tree, hundreds of years old, bears dark cankers and lesions along its limbs. A squirrel corkscrews up its trunk, like honeysuckle up a blackthorn stick, its tail glitching in a reverse question mark. The shape of the ash is like no other. It falls into a graceful chandelier, the branches and twigs curving upwards in a lilt at their tips. This one still has a few leaves. A breeze riffles lightly along a diseased bough, with the playful lightness of a hand up a sleeve. And right then, the end of the bough falls in front of me, brittle, almost hollow.
Trees start shedding limbs at 50% leaf loss.
Beside it, saplings have sprung up, but their ends appear scorched; browning, curling and dying. On the steep slope, the entire hanging wood is ash. I try to imagine it without them, and can’t.
We stand to lose so much more than the trees. Ash is a keystone tree. Emily Beardon writes in The Biologist, that 950 species rely on ash trees.
This national, natural disaster is creeping up on us and the thought almost prostrates me with grief. I love the lamp black buds like tiny deer’s feet on the smooth grey twigs; I love the zingy green and copper fireworks of the flowers in spring, the airy, open trellis of the branches, the dappling of the little fish leaves. The filtering light of them.
But in nature, and in our human ingenuity and will, there is always hope. We can expect to lose around 80% of our ash trees, but not all. Much research is being done to find, map and breed from disease resistant trees. Our World Tree, our Tree of Life is dying. But still yet, there is hope of new shoots.