A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash:
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
W H Auden 1952 (Bucolics, part II, “Woods”)
Whilst the world attempts to deal with COVID-19, there is another pandemic going relatively unnoticed. Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, more commonly know as ‘Chalara’ or Ash Dieback is a fungus predicted to kill 95% of Britain’s Ash trees within the next decade. The pathogen, brought into Britain from Asia via Europe through commercially grown ash saplings, causes leaf loss and crown dieback and eventually kills the entire tree. Unlike COVID-19, very few individuals survive.
The visual impact of losing 150 million ash trees in Britain is bad enough. But it also means the disappearance of a highly complex organism with huge cultural, historical and ecological importance. This tree, which is at the heart of Celtic mythology, that lines almost every country lane and hedgerow, that is embedded in our language, will be sorely missed by the ecological environment that it serves. For ash trees are major ‘soil enrichers’ and home to hundreds of different species including fungi, invertebrates and lichens. Not to mention the woodpeckers, bats, bullfinches, owls and many other birds that frequent it. And ash wood has so many practical benefits, in fact, there is no other wood quite like it. It is the perfect fire wood, burning brightly even when wet and it’s unique resonance or ability to absorb shock makes it ideal for flooring, furniture, and making tools which is why it has been used to for axe handles since neolithic times.
Just who and what will replace our Ash trees is a difficult question given the uncertain period in which we live but ultimately it will be shaped by the political ideologies of our time as culture has always been the architect of our landscapes. For the Puritans arriving in America in the 16th and 17 centuries, chopping down trees and clearing forests was doing god’s work and redeeming nature from its awfulness. Whereas, for the Romantics the tree has always been essential for spiritual subsistence. For Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, a connection with the deep forest was critical for the development of a healthy and fairer society leading to Roosevelt’s grand ambition to create the ‘Utilitarian Tree’, providing nourishment for all. He got thousands of men back to work building National Parks after the great American depression. In the Middle East, the tree has become a highly charged symbol of ancient rights. In contested terrains Palestinians now require permits to plant a tree and messing with a neighbours Olive tree is seen as an act of war. In Africa, the Baobab tree stands for wisdom and spirituality but most are dying out due to climate change. In Britain, the aristocracy have relied on the grand old Oak to reflect their status and reinforce the legitimacy of tradition and historic rights and the ‘Exotic Tree’, so common in suburban gardens, is a sign that there is sophistication in the neighbourhood. And then there are the ‘Outcast or “Invasive’ trees of Britain like Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Goat Willow that are sidelined by agribusiness, middle England and town planners. Their only home seems to be the hedgerow where they serve to keep livestock in and trespassers out. Farmers take pride in cutting the tops off these hedges to form neat and presentable boundary’s to keep their lanes tidy and their neighbours happy. And yet these beautiful fast growing ‘Outcast ‘or ‘Scrub’ trees that light up our hedgerows every spring may be critical in combating climate change and improving biodiversity.
So, planting a tree is a political act. It’s about beliefs and values. And it’s no forgone conclusion that governments around the globe will do the right thing in an effort to tackle the global biodiversity crisis and climate change. In fact, the government here in Britain is still encouraging destructive monoculture forestry, like dense Sitka Spruce planting, continues to subsidise pesticides that destroy our bees, is supporting sterile grouse moors and destructive sheep farming in our uplands and is ‘green lighting’ planning developments that remove ancient woodland. Boris is no Roosevelt, and there is no evidence of a new ‘pro nature’ culture emerging in his government. Instead Brexit Britain prepares for chlorinated chicken and hormone fed beef. And, with the rise of a ‘new puritanism’ around the globe we are seeing a level of destruction of rainforests and ancient habitats on a scale not seen before. Populist dictators, no longer led by faith but simply eager to please their business sponsors and raging fans are tearing down environmental regulations left, right and centre.
The encroachment of commerce and unsustainable human activity is threatening mass extinctions and it is hardly surprising that nature’s inbuilt corrective systems can no longer protect us from its pathogens. COVID-19, Lyme, Ebola and AIDS all jumped to humans after we started destroying habitats and ruining ecosystems. If we are to save ourselves from the devastating impact of future pandemics, we need a renaissance in our thinking about how we human’s co-exist with the other species with whom we share this planet. Neoliberal capitalism with its mantra that ‘the market always knows best’ has failed to take into account that the health of a nation cannot just be measured in pounds and dollars alone. We need a new way of living that puts the planets ecosystem at the heart of all our actions.
There is a ray of hope flickering through the dystopian mess we find ourselves. A growing undercurrent of feeling, energised by the impacts of COVID-19, that we need to reconnect with nature and treat our oceans, air, soils and wildlife with far more respect than we have for the last few decades. To see them as the most valuable assets we have. To witness Chinese teenagers in Beijing looking up at pollution free clear blue skies for the first time in their lives must give a glimpse of a better future. Week by week we hear of new ‘rewilding’ projects popping up all over the world demonstrating just how quickly nature can recover and flourish after years of soil depletion and destructive agribusiness. And at long last, businesses that embrace sustainability are starting to look more appealing to Wall street than those that show no signs of investing in the future of the planet. The stakes have never been higher but those with vested interests in returning to ‘business as usual’ look a lot weaker than ever before.
Lets hope we get the woods we so desperately need.
June 2020← Back