To mark the publication of Robin Walter’s Living with Trees, we’re running a series of pieces on The Clearing to celebrate and examine our relationship with our arboreal neighbours. This piece is by the writer and poet Jane Routh.
Round about the equinox, sun rises in its arms. Sometimes, a moon. Late in the day with showers over the fells, a rainbow can crown it. This morning, a thin river fog drifts up from the valley, hesitates, then fades it to monochrome: this is the most looked-at of trees, framed by the kitchen window above the sink.
We dearly want to know the age, the history, of any well-loved tree but have to be satisfied with a best guess. I’ll say this one’s been here since 1732, the year the fields below it were enclosed from the moorland and the foundations of the old barn went down. The tree is part of a hedge marking the drove road up to the remaining moorland, though I doubt it would have been planted as a tree: these old hedges are characterised by holly and thorn. I like to think it seeded itself in from tree-fodder fed to ‘Scotch’ cattle in the newly cleared fields.
Ash seeds itself everywhere, thriving on the heavy clay soils hereabouts. Roadside verges, ungrazed river banks, any unweeded corners of a garden quickly develop thickets of their green-grey stems. Protected by the prickles of a hedge, this tree’s main shoot would have been above the reach of cattle in a couple of years. It would have been left to soar above the hedge, offering shade and winter fodder if young branches were cut and dried in full leaf, kindling too. (Even now we never chop sticks for the stove: it’s easier to collect an armful of ash twigs shed in the gales: ash wood is ‘the queen’ for burning.) These days, when hedges are laid, it’s still common practice to retain hedgerow trees at intervals along the hedge.
Old ash trees like this one will have been reconfigured in many a winter’s hedge-laying. When its trunk thickened with age, it would have been coppiced down to a low bole inside the hedge, sending up vigorous new shoots the following spring, the best of them left to grow up once again.
I’ve been calling this tree ‘my’ ash tree only this past eight years. The old hedge had been left unattended for years, since well before my time here. More guesswork, thinking through who had owned the fields: it could have been untouched since the second World War. Thorn at the end of the hedge nearest to the house more than filled the view from the kitchen, a bridal whiteness of blossom in May and a dark-red wall of haws in October alive with redwings and fieldfares. Holly, willow, and the ash were further along, then more thorn, more holly – all of them tree-size. How on earth could this be saved as a hedge?
With the help of a good friend and a chainsaw, it could. The biggest job, he said, was always clearing away cut brash – everything had to go, apart from long central stems which could be coaxed and bent over at ground level and woven through each other on the cop. (Hedges round here were given a good start on a ‘cop’ – a low mound of earth held in place with a couple of courses of stone.) On the ground, the brash took up ten times more space than it had up in the air, and it was ten times more work to clear than was laying the hedge. When we worked along to the ash tree which had spread low and wide, we could see it had been coppiced many times in its life, its previously hidden bole five feet across. It supported seven coppice stems, each over a foot in diameter. We planned to reduce it to a single specimen trunk.
One trunk leaned out low and sideways almost as far as the track. That was the first to go. Another trunk opposite made you duck when you were driving the tractor: that was next. Then back and forth, eyeing the trunks from all angles. There wasn’t really a central one, nor one especially straight. In the end we kept a pair whose trunks describe the space between them with a DNA curve.
Each year since then, the ancient rootstock has pushed the lovely even dome supported by these two trunks upwards and outwards; they dance together into a single tree, black budded in winter then shooting out black and gold inflorescences in spring. (Ash can bear separate flowers of both sexes on a single tree in a continuum from female through hermaphrodite to male: this one’s completely male.) It’s a favoured stopover for woodpeckers. The summer view of the hills is filtered through its green leaflets, just beginning to yellow as I write this at the beginning of October. A few twigs on its north side stick out, bare, their leaves already dropped in the equinoctial gales. Sculling around in the grass below, I pick them up: still green, but marked with brownish spots of dead tissue the size of a fingernail.
In August 2016 I’d sent a photograph to the Forestry Commission of the first sign of Hymenoscyphus fraxineus on a six-foot high self-seeded ash sapling here. On the Commission’s map which details the spread of the disease inland from the ports, this area’s ten-kilometre square changed to light blue: ash die-back was confirmed. It seemed for a while as if only the youngest trees were affected, a diamond-shape scar at the entry point of the disease, then twigs turning orange, sometimes flashed purple. The Forestry Commission advise leaving ash trees in situ in case some may have disease resistance. We pulled up several sick saplings in order to burn their leaves (fruiting bodies of the fungus develop on leaf stalks the summer after the leaves fell to the ground) and crossed fingers for the ancient trees and the hundreds of mature ash trees I planted thirty year ago, now higher than the house. Surely, among so many ash trees, some will be in that small percentage with resistance.
We said to ourselves the dancing tree by the window was so old, it would have a genetic make-up different from everything planted more recently – maybe that would be our resistant one. We willed disease-resistance on it. Next year its outer metre of twigs will be bare, and shoots will break out lower down the branches. Then they too will be bare; year by year it will die back. Not yet, not this winter but one year soon, we’ll take it down, useful to the last as its logs feed the stove.
In the mixed broadleaf woodlands I’ll re-plant of course, though not with ash. The choice of native trees for our woods is narrowing all the time with more and more affected by specific diseases and pests. I’ve already lost elm to Dutch elm disease, chestnut to blight, rowan to canker, and alder to its own variety of fungus – though here and there I’ve re-planted a few isolated wych elms in the hope elm bark beetles carrying disease might not notice them. I’ll try hornbeam next. But when the ash tree in the hedge comes down, I’ll not replant. There, against the sky, I’ll hold its memory.
Jane Routh manages an area of ASNW and new woodlands in North Lancashire.
She has published a prose book, Falling into Place, on wildlife, weather and work in the upland area where she lives, as well as four collections of poetry and several pamphlets.
Circumnavigation won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and Teach Yourself Mapmaking was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her latest collection is Listening to the Night (smith|doorstop 2018).
The photographs in this piece are by the author.