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 moonlight 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 state we are in. 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 its commonly referred to, seems to be the pandemic no-one is really talking about. With all the media attention on the human and economic impacts of COVID-19, there seems to be limited space and time given to highlighting the tragedy taking place in the countryside. Huge numbers of species are quietly becoming extinct whilst politicians obsess 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 after we started destroying habitats and ruining 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. The mortality rate is near 100%. No tree is safe. And yet there still seems to be little concern for the plight of this tree that is so rooted in Celtic mythology and the British landscape. This lack of interest clearly reflects our disconnection with nature. We don’t see ourselves as part of nature anymore with a responsibility to ensure its welfare. And we don’t understand that our health is dependent on the health of a wider ecological system. Or what James Lovelock calls Gaia.
For many, the Ash tree is simply an ‘invader’ species and consequently it doesn’t have 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 farmers and like immigrants are left to settle in the margins. Which is why they tend to end up in the hedgerow or on ground no one wants and why there is no army of pharmaceutical companies racing to create a vaccine. Why would they ? After all they are only trees. But this soil enriching ‘invasive’ has a beauty all of its own. Beyond its elegant leaf structure and the unique sound that 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 like snowdrops, bluebells and summer wildflowers. 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 wake us up to the dystopic mess we find ourselves? The jury is currently out. A new ‘rewilding’ movement maybe emerging but it doesn’t yet occupy the popular mainstream which is dominated by the rhetoric of neoliberal economics, uninterested politicians, and a xenophobic tabloid press. 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 effected most by climate change. No wonder they are disengaged. 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. But as I photograph and record the Dieback that’s taking place around me here in Wales, I am aware of its limitations in changing politics and culture. Beautiful and insightful as it is, W.H Auden’s 1952 poem ‘Woods’ failed to save the woodlands he so wanted to protect. And looking back over history I can’t find many examples of art bringing down governments or radically changing behaviour. Despite its power, Picasso’s Guernica went unnoticed for years after the Spanish Civil War and I doubt Ai Weiwei’s sculpture Law of The Journey, a long black rubber raft highlighting the plight of migrants, will change the geopolitics of globalisation. It’s a beautiful and important work but will it stop the rage that is behind Brexit?
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 help others 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 meloncholy. Not the meloncholy 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