Ashes to Ashes


On a dull October morning with a waft of drizzle in the air I have come to pay homage to some fine old trees. Scattered across the steeply sloping pasture in front of me are about a dozen venerable oaks and ash, plus a few gnarly alders. I can only imagine these trees escaped the plough in the 20th century because this is estate land with a tenanted grazier. Whatever your views about the landed gentry they have left us a fine legacy of old trees. It is the ash trees, in particular, that I have come to honour today.

The day is brightening a little and the increased light illuminates the canopy of the nearest big ash. It seems to have a more buoyant, airy profile than the doughty oaks, but perhaps I am kidding myself as I am inclined to view ash as the fairer, more feminine of the two. Ash have always seemed a bit fey to me, slightly aloof and less down to earth than the dependable oak. These trees have grown up in open wood pasture so their canopies are full and round like domed parasols, branches drooping elegantly to the browse (or should it be hem) line: that is the limit to which stock can reach.

The leaves on this one are still mostly a dark glossy green but a few are shading to lime. In a week or two they will be lemon yellow and littering the ground like casually discarded gloves. Ash are like that –  they really don’t care. The twigs are smooth and flick up at the ends, terminating in triangular black buds reminiscent of the cloves my mother used to flavour stewed apples. Characteristically the bark is light grey and patterned with deep fissures, like the hide of an elephant. The trunk is parallel-sided up to about 20 feet where the multiple limbs spread out; this tree was undoubtedly pollarded in times past.  At the base rounded buttresses covered in white lichen are almost indistinguishable from rocks. Judging by the thick compost of droppings amongst the grass this tree gives both shade and shelter to the sheep that graze this pasture.

In most of the areas of Wales I am familiar with, ash trees only aggregate along stream sides and in valley bottoms where the leached nutrients accumulate, washed down from the thin soils above. En masse their pale grey bark lends a ghostly pallor to the winter landscape that you can pick out half a mile away.  More often I associate big ash trees with hedgerows and farmsteads. There was a fine specimen in my neighbour’s yard with a hollow big enough for a child to stand in. The story goes that a 100 years or so ago the maid (!) cleaned out the morning grate and threw hot ashes against this tree, which duly burned a hole that started the rot.

The biggest ash on this hillside has lost a massive limb, but far from disabling it the tree looks good for centuries yet. Sprouting out of the rot hole are several seedling rowans and a hazel that have germinated in the composting wood, no doubt from seeds dropped by birds or squirrels. On the opposite side a huge horizontal limb supports many smaller branches, yet miraculously the tree bears its weight without breaking. It reminds me painfully of a school punishment that required holding up a wellie in each extended arm; three minutes was bad enough let alone 300 years.

What drove me here today was the fear that trees like these might not be with us much longer; that I might outlive them, rather than the other way round. The advance of ash dieback disease has now become conspicuous in many parts of Wales; the browning twigs and leafless branches stand out almost everywhere I go. Ash dieback is caused by a fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) that originated in Asia, but was almost certainly imported into Britain with trees grown commercially in mainland Europe. The fungus produces millions of dust like spores, which spread on the wind, making it impossible to contain. We are helpless in the face of it.  There is an outside chance that it blew here naturally but the mass importation of trees and perhaps changing conditions have triggered an epidemic. Ash trees regenerate very freely in Britain, so importing young trees was clearly more about free market economics that conservation. Despite having ample opportunity to take practical precautions to prevent this disease entering the UK, nothing was done until it was too late. If ash dieback proves as lethal as it has in some parts of Europe the British landscape will be devastated.  Ash is our third commonest tree. Equally catastrophic will be the effects on the 1000 or so plants and animals that depend upon it in some way. These fine old trees may last a while yet but I can no longer draw comfort from the notion that they will outlive my children’s children. Will anyone care much? In these times when we are punch drunk with bad news stories the danger is we will shrug disconsolately – seeing it as the new normal rather than a national disaster.

Walking around old trees has always given me a feeling of security and long perspective; after all they took root before motor cars, electricity and telephones changed all our lives. They connect me, no matter how tenuously, to the pre -industrial era when human impact upon the land was unavoidably slow and gradual. There is nothing better than a really big tree to convey the sense that the affairs of humans are insignificant. Sadly this can be as deluded as it is comforting. All I can do is to honour them, stand with them and quietly rebel against their extinction.



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