OK, I know this is a departure from my usual musings, but bear with me. For those not versed in the latin names for our native trees, Fraxinus excelsior is the native Ash tree that populates these shores, and which is doomed to all but disappear from our woodlands.
The spread of a fungus called Chalara fraxinea, coupled with a rather complacent attitude within the forestry industry means that we are likely to lose 90% of our Ash trees in the UK. This is a real tragedy with serious consequences for numerous other plant and animal species whose habitat is largely dependent on this vigorous populator of our woodlands.
The Ash tree has played a significant role in my life too. Not in a 'Yggdrasil' Viking Tree of Life sense. Let's be clear, I don't worship trees. But I do love 'em, and I appreciate just how valuable they are to every other organism on the planet.
When I was a kid, I spent my summers in the mountains of Austria (see recent post), doing what every boy dreamed of, namely wielding a knife and making stuff out of branches and yomping around the woods pretending to be soldiers/adventurers/etc.
Around the garden of our family cottage, the boundary hedge contained an abundant supply of Ash, the distinctive silver bark and black shoot-tips easy to spot among the other trees and shrubs. Being so fast growing, it was ideal for making bows and arrows, walking sticks or frames for shelters. I can still smell the sap released when the bark is shaved off, and remember the 'crack' that echoed when a bow was over stretched.
Later, when I was training to be a tree surgeon, we climbed lots of ash trees. They were a good contrast to the more slow growing species as the branches were spread further apart, making rope throwing and climbing much more challenging.
Then on the 1st April 2005, it was from an Ash tree that I fell, breaking my spine and suffering permanent paraplegia. I have never attached a great significance to the symbolic elements of my accident. Indeed, I still occasionally wear the shoes I was wearing when I fell. Somewhere in storage I have my climbing belt cut in two by the Paramedics who treated me at the time.
And while this may seem obvious, I bear the tree no ill-will. It is not as obvious as it sounds; lots of people who suffer a spinal cord injury struggle with reminders of whatever led to their accident. Not me, however. The most difficult aspect of dealing with the details is that I miss climbing. Getting up among the branches, feeling the tree flex in even the slightest breeze, feeling the bark under my hands, flicking ropes over branches, moving around the canopy, all this felt right. I felt like I was able to recapture the childhood pleasure of climbing trees while contributing to their care.
I am deeply saddened that we face the virtual extinction of yet another native species. And with the projected temperature changes predicted through climate change, we are likely to lose others in the near future, too. Fagus sylvatica, the Beech would be greatly affected by a temperature change, as would Quercus robor, the iconic English Oak tree. Especially as even a modest warming in mean temperatures could lead to a blossoming of diseases like the suitably dramatic sounding sudden oak death.
I know that in the grand scheme of things, plant and animal species are locking in a constant waxing and waning over time, but when this process has been accelerated by something as crass as the profit motive it is really depressing. Remember, seeds from British Ash trees were exported to continental nurseries, and returned as contaminated saplings a few years later. Plant species don;t normally cover such distances in such a short time frame. This means that any chance of a resistance to a particular pest or disease is seriously compromised. Even a wind borne spore would be unlikely to arrive in so many places simultaneously.
For my kids, the Ash is likely to only exist in the collective memory, as the Elm does for my generation. A sad thought indeed.