In Competition No. 2775 you were invited to submit an elegy on the death of the ash.
A bleak topic for a comp, perhaps, but happily there are those who reckon that it is too early to start preparing the obituaries. Clive Anderson, president of the Woodland Trust, believes the species may well rise again. He writes: ‘Great stands of ash trees will be lost today, but they can grow back tomorrow,’ a hope echoed in what was a large and impressive entry. Commendations to David Silverman, G.M. Davis, Mary McLean and Roger Theobald. The winners below take £25 each, except for D.A. Prince, who pockets £30.
Too large for our imaginings, those bare
And hollowed landscapes where the ash once stood
In singing groves, or straggling hedgerows where
Tall saplings slowly thickened to a wood.
So, start with one familiar ash, a tree
From your own skyline, from your morning view
Through every season with its neighbourly
Reminder of the weather passing through
Its branches, bare or breaking into leaf,
Whose shifting play has scattered pools of shade,
Whose autumn gold is rendered far too brief
By the first lick of frost, whose keys displayed
A lust for living on. Now, multiply
One tree by hundreds, thousands, till they’re gone.
Once-sheltered valleys opened to the sky;
The mourning of the many starts with one.
Before man’s predecessors first took form,
Enduring ash trees flourished on the earth.
Their kind died more than once and was reborn,
Survived millennia to prove its worth.
Through ice and drought and flood and lightning strike
The keys to life, their seeds, lay safe and sound
Till new conditions let them germinate
And spread their roots in freshly fertile ground.
We mourn their loss, their usefulness and grace,
Their old mythology, their magic powers.
Leaves crumble, dead limbs fall to mark their space
In woods and parks across this land of ours.
Let us have faith that nature will sustain
Their spirit until ash trees live again.
Rumble, drum! Wail, vintage Stratocaster!
With bodies fashioned from this pliant wood,
Give us a dirge befitting the disaster
Of fungal blight where hardy trees have stood.
Flex, bow, to arc this news across the sky!
The growth that made you lithe has come to grief.
Chalara has brought low what reached so high,
Deformed live canopy to withered leaf.
The wind through spear-head green we’ll hear no more.
A loss we can’t endure we somehow must.
Nature that smote the elms deals this encore —
Vistas once rich with ash, now dead as dust.
We take some comfort, though. While hurling stick
And baseball bat alike may soon be gone,
The willow tree has not yet taken sick,
So playing for the Ashes can go on.
The ash tree, how daunting! How haunting your swan song
Whose plaintive refrain from the woodlands I hear.
Was ever before such a sorrowful song sung
To sadden the heart as your dieback draws near?
My sweetheart from childhood again is before me
As when, in the shade of your shadow, we lay,
Not knowing its darkness, in times once so carefree,
Was sadly foretelling the day you would die.
Your bird-bearing branches no longer will welcome
The woodpeckers, blue tits and soft-cooing doves,
How foul is the fungus that fetters your freedom
To flourish forever in copses and groves!
Though round and about me the chainsaws are squealing
I’ll always recall how you gladdened my heart
With sunlight and sky through your canopy smiling,
But then little thought I how soon we should part.
We watched the helicopters whirling
In those summer yesteryears,
And heard the leaves uncurling, furling,
Turning into tiny spears:
And now it seems that, like the elm,
Your hard and pliable confrère,
Dark forces seek to overwhelm
Your standing in the open air.
Axemen, racquet-wielders, turners,
Sticksmen, crabbers mourn your going,
Burly hurley-carvers, earnest,
Feel their future slowing, slowing;
But I think back to childhood days,
And bless your death with these few words:
Though fading, too, I beg to praise
The pleasures of your whirlybirds.
O weep for England’s blighted realm!
Beginning with the noble elm
(A victim of the Dutch disease),
Something is killing off our trees.
Arboricide’s beyond a joke
When sudden death attacks the oak,
And now the ash is dying back,
Reduced to firewood, stack by stack.
I grieve, and yet my spirits rise —
My elegy may win a prize.
Though dieback causes great distress,
I’m bearing up; I must confess,
I think I’ve never seen an ash
As lovely as a wad of cash.
No. 2778: Past regrets
You are invited to submit your regret, in verse, for New Year’s resolutions not kept (16 lines maximum). Please email entries, wherever possible, to email@example.com by midday on 19 December.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 December 2012