The ash tree may lack the solidity of oak, the magnificence of beech or the ancient mystique of yew. In terms of habitat it may support fewer species of fauna, insect and fungus than other trees. It may, in this country at least, occupy a smaller cultural space than many of its woodland neighbours: according to Oliver Rackham, the combined works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson mention oak 134 times, pine 113 times and ash just 23.
But with its delicate compound leaves, the pale bark and the swoop of its lower branches (likened by the writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin to the arc of a diver), ash is the prettiest of our common trees. Its timber has peculiar qualities. Both malleable and strong, it was favoured by spear-makers and wheelwrights. Its ability to absorb impact has led to its use not only as a haft for hand-tools but — still — as the subframe for Morgan cars. In the last few years it has been impossible to stand before an ash in our hedgerows or woods, to look up and see its pinnate leaves — lemony-yellow now in early autumn — refracting the sunlight, without thinking that it’s doomed.
The appearance of Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback disease lies behind Rackham’s beautifully produced and punchy monograph. A certain I-told-you-so huffiness drives his analysis of an affliction — one of many such arboreal maladies — that has arisen from the well-meaning zeal for planting trees. In his classic History of the Countryside, published in the 1980s, Rackham was already fuming about the policy of large plantations, and the view of trees as ‘mere artefacts… inanimate ornamants’. Campaigns such as Plant a Tree in ’73, Plant some More in ’74 have led to tens of thousands of seedlngs being imported. With them have come companion blights and bugs and alien fungi ready to feast on our unprotected trees. At the same time, whole forests’ worth of native saplings — fully adapted to local disease — are topped and flailed every year by farm machinery.
Rackham believes that it’s already too late for us to do anything about ash disease. We may be lucky — 2013 saw a less vigorous spread than predicted — but if we’re not, large ash trees will go the way of the great elms, filling old canvases and photographs with their nostalgic hints of a vanished age. Any effort to stem the disease now, he claims, is futile. Much better to concentrate on the next wave of invader coming along behind it: the emerald ash-borer, ‘one of the most feared beetles on earth’.
Although chronicling one kind of tree, Rackham presents a chilling catalogue of the threats to others: horse chestnut leaf miner, knopper gall, red band needle blight, alder disease, plane disease, acute oak decline, sudden oak death — Britain’s insularity has protected it from many, or at least deferred their onset. But more introduced diseases have appeared since the 1970s than in all the years before; at the same time, the study of tree pathology has disappeared from many plant science courses.
The Ash Tree ends with some bald advice :
Plant fewer trees, more expensive trees, wider apart, and take proper care of them. Stop making tree-planting a default option… Revive the science of tree pathology.
It is hard not to share Rackham’s view of decades of misguided policy, where forestry is commodity, commercially planned and executed, with scant regard for ecological constraints and risks.
Oliver Rackham himself now stands like a doughty old oak in a glade of younger, slender-trunked ecologists and naturalists. In his seventies, he has earned the right to be splenetic about the globalisation of the forestry trade, about ‘an environment geared to the anthropology of bureaucrats and at odds with the “real” world of trees and parasites.’ A lifetime of research and observation allows him to present the complexity of woodland ecology with a light and affectionate touch.
It also enables him to dispel a number of popular ideas about the ash. He is sceptical (as am I, after years of feeding wood-burners with assorted woods) of Celia Congreve’s oft-cited ‘The Firewood Poem’ which ranks ash above all woods for burning: ‘ash green or ash brown / Is fit for a queen with golden crown.’ As for the old adage ‘oak before ash, in for a splash; ash before oak, in for a soak’, he scoffs: ‘Has anyone seen ash leaf before oak? In 50 years I never have’.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place will be published next week.