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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Ash green. . .

Posted on November 23 2012 at 2:42:07 0 comments

Ash tree (right)

Mary Green ponders problems for wildlife and a troubled tree.

We are coming to the end of another strange year: no extremes of hot or cold, but an extremely dry start followed by extreme wet! The late spring and summer were cold for the time of year as well as wet.

All of this has impacted on wildlife. One casualty has been insects, including bees, which don’t like cold wet weather, with a corresponding effect on fertilisation. This has led to the failure of some fruits, especially those plants which blossomed at the cold, wet times.

Birds too had problems, not just because of the lack of insects but also because a warm March tricked many of them into having broods too early and losing them during the cold April. Fortunately one of their main autumn foods, hawthorn, has plenty of berries as it blossomed late during the pleasant weather at the end of May.

Wildlife has been in the news a lot this year. Recently the two stories have been the on-off badger cull and the ash disease Chalara fraxinea. I am relieved the badger cull has been postponed, because I don’t think the case for it is clear enough.

A major intervention into the numbers of any species, like badgers, could have unknown consequences – some experts think it may cause the animals to actually increase in numbers. We would have to be absolutely sure the outcome would be worth it.

As a farmer’s daughter, though, I understand how terrible bovine tuberculosis is, especially in the way we farm today, when it means infected cattle will be slaughtered.

The disease is preventable, of course – it can be inoculated against – but that will interfere with the sales of dairy and beef produce. If the test to distinguish between infected cattle and inoculated cattle can be refined, there might be a solution.

Ash trees are such a common species that we hardly notice them. They grow quickly for a hard-wood. They were the main tree that filled the gaps left by diseased elms and re-colonised the woods quickly after the great storm of 1987.

I have three in my garden, one of which grew when I wasn’t looking! Every year I weed out young ash seedlings.

Now they are threatened by a disease brought in from Europe. I can’t for the life of me fathom why we have been importing tens of thousands of ash trees, and their disease, when we could perfectly well grow all we need here.

Being an island gives us a bit of an advantage in resisting diseases, but only if we make the most of our own resources.

I have discovered that it is a specific variant of Chalara fraxinea which evolved in eastern Europe that is now attacking ash trees. Apparently we have had a benign variant of it for ages without it adversely affecting trees, but most are not resistant to this one.

This is why imports weren’t banned earlier: because it is not possible to ban European imports unless the plant pathogen is one which is not already in our trees, and it was not initially understood that this variant was so different. It’s a bit like hospital superbugs: a new strain arrives which we are not protected against.

However, also like human beings, some ash trees will be resistant. So, they will not cut down mature ash, to save those resistant to the disease. It will take years before we know how many we will lose.

Ash wood is both strong and flexible. It was used by the Anglo-Saxons for their spears and shield-handles. In Scandinavian myths the ash tree was known as yggdrasil, the “tree of the world,” “tree of life” and “tree of rebirth and healing”.

In Britain, the ash was also regarded as a healing tree. In the past a child would be passed through the split trunk of an ash to cure a broken limb or rickets.

The Anglo-Saxon word for ash – aesc – was also the name of the letter “a”, the first in the alphabet. The word shares a root with the word “ash” for burnt wood. It is the best-burning wood – “ash green, fit for a queen.”

I have ash logs in my grate right now. Ash was everybody’s tree: it was coppiced, and the fast-growing wood used for tool handles, furniture, sports equipment, walking sticks, tent pegs, oars, gates, lobster pots, wheel rims, and even aircraft wings on the De Havilland Mosquito which flew in World War II.

Some ancient coppiced trees have bases that are 1,000 years old. But the wood has been considered a bit inferior in recent years, which is maybe why foresters have not cultivated it – though this doesn’t explain why they have been importing it.

There has been a lot of rethinking going on about our forests in the last couple of years, and I hope it may lead to more attention being given to actually using our native trees and their wood.

We need woodland for our ecological survival, to counter the effects of carbon dioxide, so we might as well make use of it.

So many small woods, and even large ones, are under-managed and under-used. They were always part of our self-sufficiency, both as individuals and as a nation. People used every bit of wood from their local forests and copses, and the nation was known for its “hearts of oak”.

During the period of the British Empire we stopped being self-sufficient, importing food and wood and other important commodities from cheap labour in our colonies – even things we could produce here. Then the Second World War disrupted all that. For a short time we had to be self-sufficient again, and great ingenuity went into that.

Afterwards, though, the shock of discovering our dependence didn’t seem to help us understand how to become properly self-sufficient. We went in for huge forests of non-native trees and huge farms supported with weedkillers and imported fertiliser, leading to a kind of self-sufficiency without sustainability.

Perhaps the fact that we will run out of fossil fuels may once more shock us into discovering how to grow and use our own resources as sustainably as possible, so we only import things we can’t grow here. I hope so. Certainly the Woodland Trust is now saying it will step up the planting of native-grown trees.

In the cycle of nature, the ash is bare for half the year, losing its leaves quickly after a brief glorious flash of yellow, and not getting new leaves till May, after all the other trees.

The oak, its rather superior neighbour, hangs on to its leaves for the longest, often until well into November. So now in late autumn, as in May, I look out on bare ash trees with leafy oaks.

At this time we look to evergreen plants to provide colour and variety. The holly has come into its own, at the moment full of lovely red berries (a May-flowering species, so not damaged by April’s cold weather).

Ivy is in flower, with late insects feeding on it, and will provide berries for the birds in the dark days of January and February, and foliage for Christmas decorations. It also seems to especially like growing up ash trees!

In winter, traditionally the holly takes over from the oak as king of the trees, another throwback to the ancient Celtic tree calendar. The old carols say that “the holly bears the crown” and associate the tree with Christ.

Holly from the tops of the trees, where it is less prickly, used to be fed to animals during the lean days of winter. Its wood is prized for fine carving. It protected your house: cutting one down is unlucky.

Yew, the other native evergreen round here, is a dark tree of graveyards and funerals, but is brightened by poisonous red berries in the autumn. It was planted on graves to protect and purify the dead, but also, more practically, because its wood was especially useful for long-bows, and in the churchyards its poison would be away from animals.

The branches were used to decorate the church and houses for Christmas, and even used as “palm” on palm Sunday if this did not coincide with the time that pussy-willow was available. However, it seems some yews pre-date their churchyards, so it may be another case of a tree in the pagan tradition being taken over by Christianity. 

There are 1,000 year old yews surviving, and their great age and evergreen nature makes them a symbol of immortality. The yew in St Laurence churchyard, Alvechurch, is 500 years old, with a similar old one in Tardebigge church, but the one in Cofton churchyard is even older, about 800 years. Yews grow wild in many of the woods round here.

Perhaps all trees are part of the tree of life, and not only in the Celtic, Scandinavian and Christian traditions. In the Muslim faith, planting a tree is seen as a key act of charity, because it provides for other creatures and people in the future.

Among Muslims, trees were traditionally planted at wedding times – that would be a good tradition to spread. The Buddha meditated and received enlightenment sitting under a tree. 

In my family, we are all currently planting fruit trees to celebrate the centenary of my late mother’s birth. She loved her orchard and has passed this love on down the family.

She saw the line of fine elm trees disappear from the farm – the only big trees we had in that windswept spot – so I hope her descendants don’t see ash go the same way.

I seem to have done my usual trick of writing about something and then finding it gone! The young ash trees guarding the bridge to Withybed have just been cut down, a day after I found the photograph.

Fortunately it is nothing sinister – not disease – but they were destabilising the canal bridge. It does make you realise what it would be like, though, to lose them.

The poem is one I wrote for last new year.

Resolution

Home from abroad for new year. The air
Is soft and the light gentle, pink at sunrise.
While I was away the redwings came, and stripped
Holly and hawthorn, taking red flesh
And leaving cool grey bones. But underneath

A snowdrop flashes white, and a small blue eye
Of lungwort watches me. Gardens are sweet
With mahonia, viburnum, winter honeysuckle
And the first woodpecker drums on the hill.
Another year, and I am restless for spring as ever

I think of resolutions, burning the holly and cards.
Last year brought me gifts I hadn’t thought of.
In the north, I shared words with poets who wrote
Of the wild sea and the seal-women. I was
Suddenly part of a history, making the world in language

Here, I came to love a gloomy club-room, where the songs
Blossomed and took me to my roots and back again.
A girl with long hair and a guitar, a man with closed eyes,
Steel strings, and two women close in harmony
Melodeons and poems and the band reinvented each month.

I felt the power of voice, singing with old ladies
Who remembered all the words but not where they were
New friends around me, sharing the song
Blessing the house without irony and always
Looking over the rainbow, never too late to go

All that came free, without my designing it
So I resolve not make a resolution, except maybe
To love the world as it is, not as I would have it be
To keep my eyes and heart open to the winds
Let the world surprise me again this year, reinventing itself.


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