Philip Marsden

First ash dieback, then the world’s scariest beetle

A review of The Ash Tree, by Oliver Rackham. A certain understandable I-told-you-so huffiness drives this analysis of the death of one of our prettiest common trees

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.

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