The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

“An authentic genius.” Peter Marren

“Toweringly great” Monty Don

We cannot go on treating trees like tins of paint or cars to be traded around the world. Neither can we assume that planting a tree is, by default, a good thing. Industrial planting and irresponsible trade are already devastating the world’s tree populations. The Ash Tree is Oliver Rackham’s call for a radical shift in our attitude to trees – how we plant them, how we care for them after they are planted. There is no more urgent message for our times.

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Paperback | 178 x 128mm | 176 pages

Jacket illustration by Kurt Jackson
Colour photographs and illustrations throughout



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Oliver Rackham  OBE FBA was the outstanding botanical and landscape writer of his generation. His books include The History of the Countryside, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, Ancient Woodland and Woodlands, which was the 100th volume in the Collins New Naturalist series. He was Honorary Professor of Historical Ecology at Cambridge University and was Fellow of Corpus Christi College for 50 years. He was also an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society and a Fellow of the British Naturalists’ Association.  He died in Cambridge in February 2015, aged 75.

Additional information

Weight200 g
Dimensions140 × 12.8 × 180 mm

3 reviews for The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

  1. Peter Marren

    ‘He was considered by many to be an authentic genius’

    The man from the wildwood: Oliver Rackham by Peter Marren (British Wildlife)

    This book is part of a new series ‘celebrating the best in contemporary nature writing’ by a small Dorset-based publisher. Ash is one of our commonest trees – there are nearly as many Ash trees as human beings – yet until now, and unlike oak, elm, Yew or Beech, there were no books about Ash trees. What has put Ash in the spotlight is, of course, the arrival of ash dieback and the possibility that many, perhaps most, mature trees of this species may be dead ten or 20 years from now. With his usual crisp assurance, Oliver Rackham relates the biological and timber properties of this remarkable tree, one that has helped mankind for the past 5,000 years through the strength and elasticity of its wood. The cultural and material importance of Ash will be familiar to readers of Rackham’s work, What is new here is a detailed and up-to-date account of ash dieback with a summary of its biology (the fungus effectively poisons the tree), its nursery-assisted spread through Britain, its evident preference for young shoots (rendering Ash coppicing a risky activity) and its unexplained episodic nature, flaring up in 2012 and apparently calming down again through 2013. Even now, Rackham ‘dares not predict what will happen to ash’.

    Like so many tree diseases, ash dieback is a man-made disaster caused by the globalisation of plant diseases through free trade: ‘the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the globe in commercial quantities, inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the plants at their destination have no resistance’. We make a habit of ignoring such diseases until they have arrived and been detected, by which time it is usually too late to do anything about it. Tree-planting, often from infected sources, has become industrial: ‘a world of grants and tenders and contracts and subcontracts and work to be finished on time and money to be spent before the financial year’s end’; a world attuned to the needs of bureaucrats, not the real world of trees and their parasites. Planting Ash trees in Britain is a classic instance of ‘coals to Newcastle’. We are brimful of Ash trees, all regenerating away like mad, yet we go on planting them regardless. Rackham provides an overview of the consequences of heedless planting around the globe, compared with which ‘Britain has got off comparatively lightly’. Wouldn’t it be nice, he suggests, ‘if we stopped treating plants (and bees) as mere articles of trade, like cars or tins of paint’.

    As late as the twentieth century, one could write about trees (with the conspicuous exception of elm) with optimism. But for more and more trees the sky has turned dark. What can be done? Rackham offers seven practical points, beginning with a simple one: recognise the problem. Unfortunately, neither Government nor any of the tree-planting bodies seems capable of even that. Read the full Article…

  2. Philip Marsden

    Philip Marsden on Oliver Rackham for the Spectator

    The ash tree may lack the solidity of oak, the magnificence of beech or the ancient mystique of yew. In terms of habitat it may support fewer species of fauna, insect and fungus than other trees. It may, in this country at least, occupy a smaller cultural space than many of its woodland neighbours: according to Oliver Rackham, the combined works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson mention oak 134 times, pine 113 times and ash just 23.

    But with its delicate compound leaves, the pale bark and the swoop of its lower branches (likened by the writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin to the arc of a diver), ash is the prettiest of our common trees. Its timber has peculiar qualities. Both malleable and strong, it was favoured by spear-makers and wheelwrights. Its ability to absorb impact has led to its use not only as a haft for hand-tools but — still — as the subframe for Morgan cars. In the last few years it has been impossible to stand before an ash in our hedgerows or woods, to look up and see its pinnate leaves — lemony-yellow now in early autumn — refracting the sunlight, without thinking that it’s doomed.

    The appearance of Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback disease lies behind Rackham’s beautifully produced and punchy monograph. A certain I-told-you-so huffiness drives his analysis of an affliction — one of many such arboreal maladies — that has arisen from the well-meaning zeal for planting trees. In his classic History of the Countryside, published in the 1980s, Rackham was already fuming about the policy of large plantations, and the view of trees as ‘mere artefacts… inanimate ornamants’. Campaigns such as Plant a Tree in ’73, Plant some More in ’74 have led to tens of thousands of seedlngs being imported. With them have come companion blights and bugs and alien fungi ready to feast on our unprotected trees. At the same time, whole forests’ worth of native saplings — fully adapted to local disease — are topped and flailed every year by farm machinery.

    Rackham believes that it’s already too late for us to do anything about ash disease. We may be lucky — 2013 saw a less vigorous spread than predicted — but if we’re not, large ash trees will go the way of the great elms, filling old canvases and photographs with their nostalgic hints of a vanished age. Any effort to stem the disease now, he claims, is futile. Much better to concentrate on the next wave of invader coming along behind it: the emerald ash-borer, ‘one of the most feared beetles on earth’.

    Read the full article in The Spectator.

  3. Oliver Rackham

    The Times review of The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

    The ash tree has a slightly sinister reputation: it talks in a wind by clattering its twigs, it is of ancient and profound symbolism in myth and legend, and in The Ash Tree, a chilling story by MR James, it was a home for uncanny things. Nevertheless, times had been good for the ash: it was flourishing, it sheltered woodland plants and wildlife of all kinds, and its hard wood was widely used for food, medicine, building and agricultural tools. Now it is sick, a victim of ash dieback, a complex, microscopic fungus.

    Oliver Rackham, a botanist and historian of the English landscape, reckons the ash can be saved if plant (and bees) are no longer treated as mere articles of the globalised import-export trade and if the neglected science of tree pathology is revived. This short monograph is an ideal, expert introduction to an iconic tree and its endangered habitat throughout the UK.

    Published in The Times on 27th September 2014.

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