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”)
Most extinctions go unnoticed. But last night the moon lit up the dead branches of the ash trees that overlook my studio here in West Wales creating an eerie scene. It’s a landscape that is becoming familiar all over Britain and a stark reminder of the environmental crisis we are living through. You don’t have to go to the Arctic to see environmental collapse. It’s here on our doorsteps, in our lanes and hedgerows. And it’s happening now.
Chalara, or ‘Ash Dieback’, as it’s commonly referred to, is an epidemic that could see the death of up to 95% of the UK’s ash trees. This tragedy ravaging the countryside is taking place in the shadow of the global COVID-19 pandemic, so it is hardly surprising that it is happening largely unnoticed. Species are quietly heading towards extinction while politicians agonize over the economy and getting things ‘back to normal’. But it is ‘business as normal’ that is causing the problems in the first place. Lyme, Ebola, AIDS and now COVID-19 all jumped into human populations as a consequence of habitat destruction and collapsing ecosystems.
Unlike COVID-19, Ash Dieback doesn’t seem to discriminate between individuals. This fungus appears to kill trees whether they are young, old, healthy or whether they inhabit common ground or private estates. No tree is safe. And yet there still seems to be little knowledge of the plight of this tree that is so rooted in Celtic mythology and the British landscape. For many, the Ash tree is simply an ‘invader’ species without the status of the grand old Oak tree or the sophistication of the exotic tree that now dominates the suburban garden. Ash saplings are cut down as weeds by land owners and left to settle in the margins. Which is why they tend to end up in the hedgerow or on undesirable ground, and why there is no apparent urgency to find a cure. But this soil enriching ‘invasive’ species has a beauty all of its own. Beyond its elegant leaf structure and the unique ‘hissing’ sound it makes when a breeze rustles through its tiny leaves, it supports hundreds of different species of fungi, invertebrates and lichens, not to mention all the birds that rely on it for cover. And it’s unique airy canopy provides light for woodland flowers. It’s a ‘partner’ tree that allows others around it to thrive.
So will the disappearance of over 150 million Ash trees here in Britain prompt a wake up call ? The jury is out. A new ‘rewilding’ movement seems to be emerging but it doesn’t yet occupy the popular mainstream which is dominated by the rhetoric of neoliberal economics, uninterested politicians, and the voices of agribusiness. And the restricted access to our countryside prevents large numbers of citizens from experiencing nature for themselves and getting a sense of collective ownership. And as usual it’s the poorest and the most disadvantaged that are excluded from this debate. Those who already suffer most from the impacts of pollution and will be affected most by climate change. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we desperately need our green spaces and a ‘democratisation of our landscapes’ where wider groups of stakeholders are involved in the decision making. Not just Tory donors who want subsidies for their private shooting estates or the Monsanto’s of this world who lobby hard to sell us technology that we don’t need. We require the input of imaginative thinkers, ecologists, wise farmers who care about the biodiversity of their land and all those with interests beyond mere commerce. The more diverse the input the smarter and more sustainable the solutions will be.
Hopefully art can also play its part in this change. Perhaps what art does best is bear witness to what is going on and what it means to be human at any particular time. And that in itself can help us reflect on what we have done and challenge others to make wiser decisions. Philip Guston, the American painter, said that art must be involved with the world. “It can only get its energy and potency from involvement with the conditions of the world we live. The real world , the political world”. Living here in rural Wales, so decimated by monoculture and unsustainable farming, I am trying to record both the beauty and the contradictions that inhabit the land around me. But increasingly being in nature fills me with melancholy. Not the melancholy of nature’s indifference, but the feeling that all is not well and it is only a matter of time before we lose more precious species. By photographing the dying ash trees and replacing them with a diverse mix of young saplings, maybe I can play a small role in that transition to a better future. A future where we get the woods we all need.
Mike Perry June 2020← Back