My Grained Ash

My grained Ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarr’d the moon with splinters.  

There’s a storm coming in over New York. Hurricane Sandy. I’m up late, thousands of miles away on the south coast of England, worrying about my friends; about John’s generator and whether water will breach Battery Park. There’s been an apocalyptic flavour to the news today. Lower Manhattan is being evacuated and in England the ash trees are dying.

I’ve been thinking about ash dieback all weekend, trying to make sense of it, to grasp the scale of the advancing catastrophe. ‘This is a bit of a disaster for our woodlands’, DEFRA’s chief scientific advisor says on the radio, with typically British understatement. ‘This is not good news for the countryside.’ The Observer reports, incorrectly, that 30 per cent of UK woodland is ash. The real figure is more like five per cent, but there’s no doubt that their loss would prove seriously detrimental to the ecological life of these islands, in terms both of the trees themselves and the species they support: a rerun of the devastation wrought by Dutch Elm Disease in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Ash dieback was first observed in Poland in 1992, and quickly spread into Germany, Sweden, Lithuania and Austria, creeping onward across central Europe. In some regions of Denmark 90 per cent of ash trees have already been lost. The disease is caused by Chalara fraxinae, a new species of fungus. It takes its name from its host, Fraxinus excelsior, the common or European ash. Excelsior: ever upward, also the motto of New York. 

The first British case of ash dieback was in February 2012, when a consignment of infected trees was sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to Buckinghamshire. Infected trees were subsequently found in a car park in Leicester, on a college campus in Yorkshire, in a property in Durham and in a wood west of Glasgow. All had received infected nursery stocks from Europe in the past five years.

A ban on imports would potentially prevent this kind of spread (island thinking – apropos of which The Observer accompanied their report with a rogues’ gallery of other invasive species, among them fallow deer and greater spotted woodpecker, temporarily cast as the furred and feathered equivalents of the asylum seekers in Daily Mail editorials). In the past few weeks, however, the story has shifted. In October, cases of ash dieback were discovered in East Anglia in which there was no relationship to ash imports. The fungus is apparently being blown over from Europe on the wind, drifting invisibly westward, oblivious to national borders.

When a tree is infected by Chalara fraxinae its leaves wilt and blacken. Its shoots, twigs and branches die off, and its bark becomes afflicted with necrotic lesions. These lesions are sometimes surrounded by longitudinal patches of brown or grey discoloration that resemble tea stains. After a while, the twigs and branches become covered in whiskery profusions of epicormic shoots, like those seen in cork oaks after fire. The tree is reacting to the damage to its crown, that upward region of growth to which the name excelsior refers, by attempting to regenerate in its lower parts.


Those that are sterile abound in foliage and
carry their verdure a long while and are pleasing objects.

Ash is a field tree, and can grow to vast proportions. In Norse mythology it is Yggdrasil, the world tree, which stands forever green. The god Odin hung himself from its branches, wounded by his own spear, and where its roots went, no man knows.

These rumours of longevity and increase are bedded in fact. In Suffolk, there is a coppiced ash believed to be a thousand years old. In woods, ash is more spindly: a fast coloniser, a prolific self-seeder. According to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, ashes ‘repaired the gashes’ caused in our southern woods by the great storm of 1987, as well as taking up the stations of England’s missing elms.

The ash is a beautiful tree. Its leaves are greenish yellow, pinnate and nearly translucent. If one lies on a bank in summer and looks up through them, it’s like being suspended inside a Japanese woodcut. In autumn they’re hung with keys and in winter they sprout black buds. The grain is close, and was used for furniture, axe shafts, hockey sticks, oars, skis and billiard cues. In the Renaissance, an infusion of ash was believed to break up kidney stones, an action described as litholytic.

Breaking up, and also binding; restoring. In Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, there is a letter White wrote on 8 January 1776 about the pagan practices that once abounded among the ‘lower people’ of his parish. He describes a row of pollarded ashes, ‘which, by the seams and cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that in former times they have been cleft asunder.’ These trees had apparently been cut open and held apart with wedges, so that ‘ruptured children’ could be passed naked through the cleft. When this operation was complete, ‘the suffering part’ of the tree was plastered with loam and bandaged up. If it cleaved together, the child would heal, though if it remained open they would continue to ail. White believed this act of sympathetic magic was Saxon in origin. He went on to report that he had chopped down three such trees in his own garden, one of which had never cleaved and still gaped apart.

I wonder, thinking of these ruptured trees, if M.R. James, the medievalist and writer of supernatural stories, ever thumbed his way through White’s History. In 1904, the year before he became Provost of King’s College Cambridge, James published a story called ‘The Ash-tree’, in which the same tension between rationality and superstition evident in White’s letter is rendered in far darker  colours.

‘The Ash-tree’ is set in an Elizabethan dwelling house in Suffolk, Castringham Hall, against which stands an enormous ash tree, that ‘had wellnigh attained its full dimensions in the year 1690’. The story begins during the witch trials. ‘It will be long, I think’, the narrator muses, ‘before we arrive at a just estimate of the amount of solid reason – if there was any – which lay at the root of the universal fear of witches in olden times.’

During the trials, the owner of Castringham Hall, Sir Matthew Fell, reports having seen a village woman come three times to the ash tree by his bedroom window at full moon. Each time she climbed into its branches, wearing only a shift, and cut small twigs with a ‘peculiarly curved knife’. Mrs Mothersole is tried, sentenced and hanged on Fell’s testimony, and a few weeks later, at full moon, he too is found dead. The servants discover him in bed, his body blackened, swollen, and much disordered. When the women come to wash and lay out his corpse they experience great pain in their hands, and later their forearms swell to immoderate size, though no doctor can find trace of a poison in the corpse.

Some decades later, Sir Matthew’s grandson, Sir Richard Fell, inherits the house. After a bad night in his chamber, he decides to find new sleeping quarters. In the end he settles upon old Sir Matthew’s room, in which no one has so much has set foot since the body was removed. ‘Yes’, he says to the housekeeper, ‘the tree perhaps does make the place a little dampish… No; I do not wish to listen to any more.’

That same afternoon, a house party arrives, and the next day a bishop among their number comments on the ash’s proximity to Sir Richard’s room, observing that not one of his Irish flock would occupy the chamber, for ‘our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the worst of luck to sleep near an ash-tree.’ Sir Richard, who has now spent an unnerving night in the room, agrees that the tree’s presence is a touch disquieting.

At this juncture something strange happens to the fabric of the story. The donnish, ironic first person voice dissolves into a ‘we’. We are inside Sir Richard’s chamber; we are watching the sleeping Squire, who is apparently moving his head very rapidly against the pillow. And then it seems – but how is this possible? – that he has several heads, several round and brownish heads. And then something drops off the bed ‘with a soft plump, like a kitten’, and in the morning Sir Richard is as dead and blackened and disordered and swollen as was his grandfather before him. 

One last scene. The gathered guests assemble by the tree, horrified by the news. As they discuss motive and weapon, the Bishop of Kilmore happens to notice a white tom-cat balancing on the edge of the ash tree’s hollow trunk, apparently watching something inside. The cat topples, there is a horrible screech, a woman faints and the gardener is dispatched upward – excelsior! ­– with a ladder and lantern. He too tumbles, though fortunately this time backwards, dropping the lantern inside the tree. The lantern starts a fire. The men gather round, armed with whatever weapons they can find. One by one, spiders rush out, each the size of a man’s head, some “veinous and seared” and some covered in greyish hair. The fire burns all day and at last the ash collapses into pieces. In the hollow place where its roots pass into the ground are found two or three more spiders and in addition the crouched skeleton of a black-haired woman, ‘clearly dead for a period of fifty years.’

What is one to make of these stories of dead trees, dying trees, trees that heal and trees that kill? It seems to me they are connected; that in fact they are bound together, as Selborne’s ashes were once bound together. The woman in the shift with the curved knife: who is she? In Sir Matthew’s testimony she turned into a hare and ran away across the fields, and these three objects – the hare, the curved knife, and the blackened twigs of ash – seem drawn from a far older story. And what of the three felled trees in Gilbert White’s garden, and the burned ash that fell all to pieces, exposing its roots? These, at least, I think I recognise.


the ash for nothing ill

In the winter of 1996, when I was nineteen, I went to a road protest for the first time. We drove through the early dusk and arrived late at night. It was very cold, and the ground was hard with frost and the sky was clear and full of stars. People were sitting around the fire, singing folk songs, and when they grew tired they climbed up the trees that surrounded us in a circle and disappeared. I slept in the communal bender that night, and the next morning I crawled out and saw Fairmile by daylight.

There were treehouses in every tree, connected by double walkways of blue polypropylene. The idea was that you clipped the cow’s tail of your climbing harness to the top rope and walked along the bottom one. In the big tree, the Quercus Oak, there were six or seven houses, each roofed with sheets of tarpaulin. I’ve never experienced anything like the magic of that scene: the sense of having fallen into a storybook world. Lothlórien, no doubt about it.

I only visited Fairmile once, but a few months later I left university and went to another protest in Dorset, in a scrap of beech and ash wood on a hill above Weymouth, set slant to the sea. I’d learned to climb by then, to prussik up a rope, to abseil, and to drop plumb down through a tree, catching at branches to break my fall. That summer we lived an arboreal life, lying for much of the day in a great net slung just beneath the canopy. My treehouse had a camp bed, and at night I’d leave the fire and climb up tipsy, swinging around three sets of walkways and then shinning up a sycamore, from which I had to step, maybe three storeys from the ground, into my house.

I’ve heard it said by ecologists that we might be mistaken in seeing a tree as a single organism; that the working organism, the whole body, is the wood itself. That summer, I lived as a part of a trans-species community in a way I can barely imagine now. I haven’t lost my love of trees, but I no longer remember exactly how it felt to live amongst them.

This sense of rupture, of being apart from the natural world, buzzes away at the core of both White’s and James’s stories. The rational man chops down his ash trees, with their seams and their cicatrices; their intricate, convivial history. ‘Cut it down’, Sir Richard Fell says. ‘If that stands for the ash-tree he may rest assured that I shall not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrh and ague was never seen.’ James, who had an antiquarian’s mistrust for ancient things disturbed, often finds punishments for people who are too modern, too disrespectful of old ways. If he was telling Gilbert White’s story, one can be certain something nasty would befall the country vicar, out in the garden with his axe.

There’s no suggestion yet that ash dieback is directly caused by humans, though its spread has certainly been accelerated by both our patterns of woodland management and our habits of trade. In time, it may prove that Chalara fraxinae arose into existence because of changes in climate, or that the trees’ natural resistance was diminished by pesticides and pollution. Perhaps not. And perhaps Hurricane Sandy is just a storm, and the fact that the East River is currently swilling under the FDR is what one once could call a natural disaster.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that what is happening to the ash trees is as much a testament of our ruptured relationship to nature as was the great destruction of woodlands for roads that took place in the 1990s. I remember the devastation then, the lovely forests chainsawed down and turned to swamp, from which protruded burning stumps. I remember the clouds of smoke, the tang of ashes in the air.

Is there, I wonder, a way to reverse all this; to stop our world falling into what White called suffering parts? I don’t know. I’ll tell you one thing though. If I find an ash tree torn asunder, I’m minded to pack it with loam and bandage it up, just to see what species of mending might occur.