There is nothing like a book about something very specific, let's say an ash tree, to suddenly make me notice ash trees all over the place, and where previously I may just have walked past...
This one, spotted on the Tamar Walk a few weeks ago, diverted me off course for about ten minutes, especially as we were crossing private land open for one day a year only, so this a tree not usually up for the public's gaze. I wanted to take my fill...
Of course my one dread is that someone will say 'That's not an ash tree you muppet,' or similar, but I was fairly sure it was, not only because I passed my Brownie Nature Badge which involved pressing six leaves (and ash was one) but also because since reading Oliver Rackham's book The Ash Tree, third in the Little Toller Monograph series, I have been on the alert. Looking especially for ash keys...and maybe it is me but they seem to have been in short supply this year, so I was please to find some here...
Having read the first two in the Monograph series and realised that I will be collecting and keeping, and reading these little hardback books many times over, The Ash Tree was quickly in my 'basket.' I am on the edge of my seat for those promised next from Little Toller who are commissioning 'new writing attuned to the natural world and which celebrates the rich variety of the places we live in.'
Dating trees by looking at them is not really my speciality but I feel sure this Tamar Walk specimen must rank amongst the Getting-On-A-Bit and had I been of a mind to chop it down I would surely have been able to spot the narrowing rings marking the drought of 1976...how astonishing that a tree can tell us so much.
And here's something I didn't know.
Ash leaves fall off the tree in autumn whilst still green. Why had I never realised that before?
Of course now I see it everywhere I walk...
Lacking the mystique of oak and yew the poor old ash may have been seriously under-appreciated until the sudden threat of Ash Disease (Chalara) loomed large, then it seems we all fell in love with it, worried that it might go the way of the elm...and the larch... and the horse chestnut...and the oak, because if this book does nothing else it alerted me to the very real threat that diseases pose to our trees. And it would appear that, unlike so many other countires, we are rubbish here in the UK at thinking ahead and organising some primary prevention. Even secondary prevention would be good, but our island complacency suggests that we only seem to wake up when the damage is underway, and then we panic. Larch have been felled in vast quantities around us here thanks to Phytophthora ramorum. Sorry, that's just showing off, of course I had to look it up, but everywhere you look there are suddenly vast tracts of bareness where previously we saw trees.
Though one of our chief woodland trees, I was intrigued to discover a sort of woodish class system surrounding the ash; a hierarchy of status which places ash below oak and elm in the pecking order meaning that it is never used in church carpentry, but you would be very pleased to see it used in spade handles, wooden wheel rims, or the oar if you were rowing a boat.
Remember wooden tennis rackets?
Most likely ash, and likewise hockey sticks.
When it comes to a pecking order in our woodshed, second to oak, we prefer to burn ash above all other, though Oliver Rackham would disagree with us and with Celia Congreve's Firewood Poem..
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.
Oliver Rackham suggests that...
'but maybe in a damp and draughty palace it is the best a sovereign can get.'
No matter, the sight of a log basket full of ash next to our woodburner tells me we are in for a toasty warm evening.
Having set out the history, the prevalence, uses and mythology surrounding the ash tree I was reminded of John Caple's atmospheric paintings of Somerset and in particular the custom of Ash Tree Blessing...
' For an ash tree blessing you must find a young ash tree in a secret place, split its trunk open and pull back the two sides: the young baby is then passed through this gap of exposed heartwood. Then perhaps the most important part : the split trunk is reunited and bound up. As the wood heals and joins, so the baby will grow strong and healthy.'
Oliver Rackham offers as clear-a warning as it is possible to give about the consequences if we continue on the path of tree-disease denial, and also outlines where he feels the trouble rests...
'...the greatest threat to the world’s trees and forests is globalisation of plant diseases, the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the globe in commercial quantities, inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the plants at their destination have no resistance. This has been subtracting tree after tree from the world’s ecosystems; if it goes on for another hundred years how much will be left?
Preface from The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham
I emerged from the book informed and as worried as it is possible to be about the Emerald Ash Borer beetle which has apparently caused havoc in the US and will inevitably do so here. It arrived Stateside in a shipment of Japanese car parts and apparently has already killed more ash trees across America than exist in the whole of Britain and Ireland.
I was stunned. Honestly, the things we don't know to be worried about until someone spells it out...
To cheer us all up Little Toller have started a seasonal newspaper, The Toller Review, which you can either access online or, as I did, ask to receive a good old fashioned paper copy by post. But be warned, the paper copy comes with a beautiful sheet with colour pictures of all the book covers and a tantalising tear-off order form at the bottom offering free postage. Within a nano-second I had started ticking off the books I already had, selected two I didn't but of course absolutely needed to have, and the cheque was in the post before I knew it.