Ashes to ashes

They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.

There’s an ash that I pass each morning with the dog.  I pay closer attention to the tree’s features – the grey bark, ribbed with a fine lattice pattern of ridges, the delicate leaves with their matching pairs of leaflets, and the distinctive black buds leaflets at the tip of each new shoot – now that it is like a friend of whom you hear news of a life-threatening illness.  This tree looks healthy yet (photos of it illustrate this post), but the fungal spores that lead to ash dieback are advancing across the country: there has been at least one confirmed sighting in neighbouring Cheshire.

According to Oliver Rackham in Woodlands, the ash is one of the longest-established trees of these isles, advancing across the land bridge after the end of the last ice age.  In that book Rackham writes that ‘trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities’, and the spectre of losing all our ash has prompted many reflections on how deeply embedded trees are in our culture and our daily, living consciousness.

In Wildwood, Roger Deakin talked the feature of ash which has bound it to humans through time immemorial: its practical virtues as a timber, deriving from its remarkable pliability and toughness. He quotes William Cobbett, who valued the utility of ash over its beauty:

Laying aside this nonsense, however, of poets and painters, we have no tree of such various and extensive use as the Ash. It gives us boards; materials for making instruments of husbandry; and contributes towards the making of tools of almost all sorts. We could not well have a wagon, a cart, a coach or a wheelbarrow, a plough, a harrow, a spade, an axe or a hammer, if we had no Ash. It gives us poles for our hops; hurdle gates, wherewith to pen in our sheep; and hoops for our washing tubs; and assists to supply the Irish and West Indians with hoops for their pork barrels and sugar hogsheads. It therefore demands our particular attention; and from me, that attention it shall have.

Deakin points out that coopers made the hoops Cobbett refers to by cleaving coppice ash in two and bending the flat side round the barrel or washing tub.  He also took advantage of the ash’s pliable nature when he created an ash bower near his home at Walnut Tree Farm:

My ash bower is a kind of folly, an Aboriginal wiltja that stands at the top of my long meadow in Suffolk. It consists of a double row of lively ash trees bent over into Gothic arches like a small church. I planted it twenty years ago. It is eighteen feet long by nine feet wide, with four pairs of trees six feet apart along each side curving up to meet just under seven feet off the ground, so you can walk up and down inside. In the summer heat it is a cool, green room roofed with wild hops and the flickering shadows of ash leaves. I sometimes sling a hammock inside. I even installed a bed last year … [...]

I make no claims for the originality of its conception: it was directly inspired by David Nash’s Ash Dome. It is what they call in film or art magazines an hommage, although I prefer to hold up both hands and call it pure plagiarism. For all that, it gives me enormous pleasure and interest, and it has grown into a mild obsession. [...]

The elephant-grey bark begins to gleam in a light rain shower. I love this skin of ash, almost human in its perfect smoothness when young, with an under-glow of green. It wrinkles and creases like elephant skin at the heels and elbows of old pleachers where they have healed. [...]

The bower is floored in lords and ladies, ground ivy and mosses, and its eight trunks cross-gartered with wild hops, our English vines. They thatch its roof with their big cool leaves, dangling bunches of the aromatic, soporific female flowers from the green ceiling like grapes. As spring comes on, the bower fills like a bath with frothy white Queen Anne’s lace … Even at the age of twenty the trunks of the bower are beginning to show some of the early signs of what will accrue with age: they are green with algae and lichens are beginning to form around their damp feet. They are putting on ankle socks of moss. There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan.

Deakin speaks, too, of the characteristic flamboyance of the ash:

I love its natural flamboyance and energy, and the swooping habit of its branches: the way they plunge towards the earth, then upturn, tracing the trajectory of a diver entering the water and surfacing. In March the tree is a candelabra, each bud emerging cautiously, like the black snout of a badger, at the tip of every branch.

By the time Deakin came to write about his ash dome, in the closing pages of Wildwood, he was terminally ill, though unaware of this fact. In the book’s final passage he questions whether he was right to force the tree into the contortions required of it to form the bower; but, reasons:

I’ve done the tree no harm and in time it will grow into something beautiful as ash always does, the badger-noses on the new shoots leading the way.  It doesn’t need me to teach it to dance: it is naturally playful, a contortionist with ancestral memories of tumbling with the hedger’s no less wilful strength.  When the bower eventually comes of age long after I am gone, the wooden spinning top might still be going round too.

The ash dome created by David Nash on his own woodland in North Wales, is an example of a ‘growing’ work, a ring of ash trees he planted in 1977 and trained to form a domed shape. The dome is sited at a secret location somewhere in Snowdonia and whenever it’s filmed, crews are taken there by a circuitous route to guard its security. His planting of twenty two ash trees has committed him to more than thirty years of care, training and pruning and echoes his belief that he begins the works but they are completed by time and circumstance. Nash continues to maintain the Dome and records its changes in different contexts through drawings and photographs.

A couple of years back the Woodland Trust published a collection of short stories, Why Willows Weep, in which various writers each told a tale of their favourite tree.  William Fiennes chose the ash in ‘Why the ash tree has black buds’:

The trees have always had some idea of what happens to them when they die. In forests they saw their neighbours toppled by wind or age and rot into earth, and their roots sent up descriptions of peat and coal in vast beds and seams. Later, when humans came along, trees saw the stockades, the carts pulled by horses, the chairs and tables set out in gardens, and quickly put two and two together. Trees growing beside rivers saw themselves in the hulls and masts of boats, and trees in orchards understood that the ladders propped against them had once been trees, and when men approached with axes to fell them, the trees recognized the handles.

Trees often wondered what their particular fate might be. Would they subside into the long sleep of coal, or blaze for an hour in a cottage grate, or find themselves reconfigured as handle, hurdle, post, shaft, stake, joist, beam – or something more elaborate and rare: an abacus, a chess piece, a harpsichord? And out of these dreams a rumour moved among the trees of the world like a wind, not quite understood at first, it was so strange – a rumour that when they died, instead of being burned, planed, planked, shimmed, sharpened, many trees would be pulped. This was an entirely new idea to trees, whose self-image was all to do with trunk, sturdiness, backbone, form. But trees are good at getting the hang of things, and soon they understood that from pulp would come the white leaves humans called paper, and that these leaves would be bound into books, and after a short season of anxiety in which conifers shed uncharacteristic quantities of needles, the trees came to terms with this new possibility in the range of their afterlives.

Yes, the trees recognized themselves in paper, in books, just as they recognized themselves in all the other things that hadn’t been thought of quite yet, like bedsteads and bagpipes and bonfires, not to mention violins, cricket bats, toothpicks, clothes pegs, chopsticks and misericords. Men and women would sit in the shade of trees, reading books, and the trees, dreaming of all that was to come, saw that they were the books as well as the chairs the men and women sat in, and the combs in the women’s hair, and the shiny handles of the muskets, and the hoops the children chased across the lawns. The trees took pride in the idea of being a book: they thought a book was a noble thing to become, if you had to become anything – a terrible bore to be a rafter, after all, and a wheel would mean such a battering, though of course the travel was a bonus, and what tree in its right mind would wish to be rack, coffin, crucifix, gallows . . .

One tree was more excited than all the rest, and that was the ash. The ash has such an inviting, feathery shade: when men and women first had books to take into the shade of trees, they often chose the shade of an ash. The ash would look down at these people reading and see that they were discovering new regions inside themselves, and notice how when they stood up and left the jurisdiction of its branches they had changed as if buds inside them were coming into leaf, and the ash saw that this change was a property of the marks on the paper, and that paper was the only leaf with worlds in it. Soon ash trees were discussing this phenomenon all over the place, whispering about books in Manchuria and Poland and the Pennines, passing information from grove to grove, until ash trees across North America and the Eastern and Western Palearctic were sighing and swaying with thoughts of words and pens and poems and printing presses and Odysseus and Scheherazade and the Song of Songs . . .

So ash trees dreamed of becoming books themselves one day, even though they would be much in demand as firewood, and prized as material for oars, hockey sticks and the chassis frames of Morgan motor cars. Sometimes, dreaming ahead, they saw men and women sitting beneath them, writing – writing in notebooks and diaries, writing letters of love and consolation, writing stories. And the ash tree wanted to be that, too – not just the book, but the writing in it, the words that carried the worlds. They saw the men and women holding their pens, and the ink that came out of them on to the paper, and although they didn’t have hands, they tried to curl their branches into fingers that might hold pens, and they dreamed it so vividly that the tips of their fingers turned black with ink as they waved against the blank white page of the sky, trying to write on it.

Look closely: the ash tree has black buds, and the branches bend upwards at their tips, towards the whiteness.

The anthology has just been republished on Kindle to help raise funds for the Woodland Trust to combat diseases threatening the ash and other native trees.

Who knows how many ash trees may have to be cut down as the disease spreads.  In his journal, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of his anguish at seeing an ash being cut down:

The ash tree growing in the corner of the garden was felled.  I heard the sound and, looking out and seeing it maimed, there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.

Ash trees were not, of course, cut down for their useful timber – they were pollarded.  Here, Manley Hopkins is expressing the pain in losing a tree which forms part of the ‘inscape’ (a word he had invented meaning ‘individually-distinctive beauty’), as all trees are part of all our collective ‘inscape’. In the poem ‘Ash-boughs’ Manley Hopkins celebrates a tree waking from winter’s dormancy, groping toward warmth and light.  He watches the tree in winter, and then as it throws off snow and welcomes spring. It is the earth sustaining and being sustained by new life:

Not of all my eyes see, wandering on the world,
Is anything a milk to the mind so, so sighs deep
Poetry to it, as a tree whose boughs break in the sky.
Say it is ashboughs: whether on a December day and furled
Fast or they in clammyish lashtender combs creep
Apart wide and new-nestle at heaven most high.
They touch heaven, tabour on it; how their talons sweep
The smouldering enormous winter welkin! May
Mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray
Of greenery: it is old earth’s groping towards the steep
Heaven whom she childs us by.

In Edward Thomas’s ‘Fifty Faggots’, the age-old certainties of laying aside ash and hazel faggots for the winter is subsumed into a sense of dread at the uncontrollable forces at work in a world at war:

There they stand, on their ends, the fifty faggots
That once were underwood of hazel and ash
In Jenny Pinks’s Copse. Now, by the hedge
Close packed, they make a thicket fancy alone
Can creep through with the mouse and wren. Next Spring
A blackbird or a robin will nest there,
Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain
Whatever is for ever to a bird.
This Spring it is too late; the swift has come,
‘Twas a hot day for carrying them up:
Better they will never warm me, though they must
Light several Winters’ fires. Before they are done
The war will have ended, many other things
Have ended, maybe, that I can no more
Foresee or more control than robin and wren.

Diana J Hale, in her most recent blog post, also on the threat to the ash, quotes a beautiful passage from Edward Thomas writing about the sight of ash trees shedding their leaves in autumn.

Two contemporary poets seem to capture a sense of the deep meaning attachment that trees evoke, even in a suburban setting – as in Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Tree House’ – or deep beneath the capital’s streets on the London underground in Katherine Gallagher’s quirky ‘The Year of the Tree’.

Hands on a low limb, I braced,
swung my feet loose, hoisted higher,
heard the town clock toll, a car
breenge home from the club
as I stooped inside. Here

I was unseeable. A bletted fruit
hung through tangled branches
just out of reach. Over house roofs:
sullen hills, the firth drained
down to sandbanks: the Reckit Lady, the Shair as Daith.

I lay to sleep,
beside me neither man
nor child, but a lichened branch
wound through the wooden chamber,
pulling it close; a complicity

like our own, when arm in arm
on the city street, we bemoan
our families, our difficult
chthonic anchorage
in the apple-sweetened earth,

without whom we might have lived
the long-ebb of our mid-decades
alone in sheds and attic rooms,
awake in the moonlight souterrains
of our own minds; without whom

we might have lived a hundred other lives,
like taxis strangers hail and hire,
that turn abruptly on the gleaming setts
and head for elsewhere.

Suppose just for the hell of it
we flagged one – what direction would we give?
Would we still be driven here,
our small town Ithacas, our settlements
hitched tight beside the river

where we’re best played out
in gardens of dockens
and lady’s mantle, kids’ bikes
stranded on the grass;
where we’ve knocked together

of planks and packing chests
a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we’ve asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.
-
Kathleen Jamie

I came across Katherine Gallagher’s poem when it was selected by Carol Rumens as poem of the week on her regular online feature for The Guardian where you can read her gloss on the poem:

I carried a tree
through the Underground.

It was hard. At first,
people scarcely noticed me

and the oak I was lugging
along the platforms –

heavier than a suitcase
and difficult to balance.

We threaded through corridors,
changing lines: up and down stairs,

escalators, and for a moment
I imagined everyone on the planet

taking turns
to carry a tree as daily rite.

A few people asked
Why a tree?

I said it was for my own
edification –

a tree always
has something to teach.

Sharp gusts
whirred through the corridors

rustling the branches
as I hurried on

past the sweepers
picking up rubbish, scraps of paper.

Be sure to take the tree
with you
, they said.

Don’t worry, I’m taking it
to my garden,

the start of a forest.
When people stared,

Relax, I said,
it’s a tree, not a gun.

But I think it’s Robert Frost, in ‘The Sound of Trees’ who speaks most powerfully of the hold that trees have on us:

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Update 20 November: via the Caught By the River blog I was directed to this web page at Little Toller books that is a celebration of the beauty and the utility of the ash.  On the same website, Poet Jos Smith responded with a superb essay which concludes:

We ought to think about making vivid tributes to the ash tree now. Tributes that capture something truly distinctive about the tree as Hopkins’ ‘Ash-boughs’ or as E.J. Scovell’s ‘Ash Trees’ do. Poems, paintings and recordings, words, images and sculptures that with their own ‘shining loam’ conserve something of the ash. Not as elegies or commemorations necessarily, but to remind future generations of the virtues of this remarkable tree, a tree with which we have shared our lives more intimately than perhaps we always remember. Soon enough, and for many generations, the ash may no longer be a familiar sight, but here and there a few tenacious genetic variations will endure as they have in Sweden, Denmark and Lithuania. Of course, this won’t help the forest wildlife that will feel the withdrawal of such a huge agent in our ecosystems acutely, but it will give future generations some access to the impression the tree makes on us today; its uses as medicine, material and myth. It will also – and perhaps just as importantly – offer a simple appreciation of the ash’s ubiquitous and companion presence on the edges of our lives, dripping with rain or swelling softly with wind through the night.

Also at Little Toller Books, there’s a piece by Sue Clifford and Angela King that reminds us that the ubiquity of the ash is revealed in place names. Not far from here is the suburb of Knotty Ash, and my mother grew up in a Derbyshire village not far from Monyash:

It is one of our most common trees, as a glance at the numerous place names containing ash or ask in any gazetteer will tell: Ashby-de-la-Launde to Long Ashton, Askam and Askrigg to Knotty Ash. Reaching heights of 140 feet (45m) it thrives in city parks unhindered by air pollution. Enjoying the lack of competition for light, it is a frequent hedgerow tree, often covering for the lost elms. Ash also makes fine woodlands: on its own on the steep slopes of the Derbyshire Dales, with oak on the Herefordshire borders and on chalky boulder clay in the east where it also lives with maple and hazel accompanied by the richest of woodland ground flora.

Monyash means ‘many an ash’ and certainly the valley ash woods as well as road-side trees in the White Peak and Yorkshire pick out the Carboniferous limestone, further to the east the north-south sliver of magnesian limestone from Nottinghamshire up to County Durham also favours ash. Ash is common in the Jurassic limey Cotswolds and the Carboniferous limey Mendips where the oldest ash tree in Europe is said to be found at Clapton in Somerset; it’s of no age in comparison with the coppice stools in Suffolk.

They reminded me of something else, too, that I had completely forgotten: an old saw my mum passed on to me:

Looking out for the first to leaf in spring is one of the ancient and best known forecasting tools: Oak before ash we’re in for a splash, ash before oak we’re in for a soak.  The oak relies on warmth, the ash on light and our climate has changed sufficiently in the last 20 years to bring the oak into leaf every year before the ash, it is now ten days ahead…

And check out Richard Mabey speaking wise words about ash dieback in this recent YouTube video:

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9 thoughts on “Ashes to ashes

  1. Wonderful collection of pieces of writing, and lovely images too. It is all so sad, and disturbing. Thanks for the mention. I was wondering what might happen to David Nash’s Ash Dome.

    • Particularly disturbing to think of Nash’s Ash Dome being felled. There may be hope – some experts are suggesting that certain older trees may survive.

  2. The Ash Dome caught my imagination when I read Wildwood, and this post brought the magic of it back and added to it, immeasurably. I’m glad Why Willows Weep is available on Kindle–I must have it, especially if it will help preserve ash trees.

  3. You write the most beautiful and inspiring essays. Thanks so much for feeding my mind. I was a country girl – brought up in the New Forest – and my heart aches to see trees suffer and our landscape change. There is so much happening to our trees at the moment. It’s frightening.

  4. When I was a child we had one big ash tree on the boundary of our garden. I loved the keys in the autumn and used to play with them imagining myself the keeper of a big house. And I loved the buds in the winter – they were animal hooves to me in my private animalistic world that I lived in where I was more animal than human! And so branches became horses, dinosaurs and monsters for me to play with.

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