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The Virtues of Ash

VIRGIL
Fraxinus in sylvis pulcherrima, pinus in hortis,
Populus in fluviis, abies in montibus altis
(The ash is the most beautiful tree in the woods, the pine in gardens, the poplar by rivers, and the fir on high mountains)

HOMER
Red-haired Menelaus, deeply angered, replied: ‘Father Zeus, how vile, such arrogance as this! Leopards, lions, vicious wild boars the bravest of the brave among creatures, show less effrontery than these sons of Panthous with their ash spears!

SNORRI STURLUSON (from Poetic Edda)
An ash I know there stands,
Yggdrasil is its name,
a tall tree, showered
with shining loam.
From there come the dews
that drop in the valleys.
It stands forever green over
Urðr’s well.

WILLIAM GILPIN
I have sometimes heard the oak called the Hercules of the forest and the ash, the Venus. The comparison is not amiss: for the oak joins the idea of strength to beauty: while the ash rather joins the ideas of beauty, and elegance.

JOHN CONSTABLE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EDWARD THOMAS (‘The Ash Grove’)
Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval –
Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles – but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.

ALFRED TENNYSON (from ‘The Princess’)
. . .
O were I thou that she might take me in,
And lay me on her bosom, and her heart
Would rock the snowy cradle till I died.

Why lingereth she to clothe her heart with love,
Delaying as the tender ash delays
To clothe herself, when all the woods are green?

O tell her, Swallow, that thy brood is flown:
Say to her, I do but wanton in the South,
But in the North long since my nest is made.

. . .

GERALD MANLEY HOPKINS (‘Ash-boughs’)
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 ash-boughs: 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 snow white through them, a fringe and fray
Of greenery: it is old earth’s groping towards the steep
Heaven whom she childs us by.

WILLIAM COBBETT: (from The Woodlands)
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 demands our particular attention; and from me, that attention it shall have.

AGNES MILLER PARKER (‘Ash buds’)

JOHN CLARE (from ‘Remembrances’)
. . .
When jumping time away on old cross berry way
& eating awes like sugar plumbs ere they had lost the may
& skipping like a leveret before the peep of day
On the rolly polly up and downs of pleasant swordy well
When in round oaks narrow lane as the south got black again
We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rain
With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain
How delicious was the dinner time on such a showry day
O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away
The ancient pulpit trees and the play
. . .

WG HOSKINS (from The Making of the English Landscape)

Hill-top villages are particularly suggestive of a great antiquity. High up on the edge of Cranborne Chase, on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire, stands a village with the good old Saxon name of Ashmore; but it has probably been continuously lived in since Romano-British times. Not only does it stand on a hilltop, in country that is thickly strewn with evidences of early man, including several Romano-British villages, but it is built around a big embanked pond which gives the village its Saxon name – ash-mere, ‘the pond of the ash tree’.

KURT JACKSON (‘Birdsong between showers. So Mr or Mrs Ash how old are you?’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RUDYARD KIPLING (from ‘Tree Song’)
Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.
Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs,
(All of a Midsummer morn!)
Surely we sing no little thing,
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
. . .

JOHN BETJEMAN (from ‘Upper Lambourne’)
. . .
Feathery ash in leathery Lambourne
Waves above the sarsen stone,
And Edwardian plantations
So coniferously moan
As to make the swelling downland,
Far surrounding, seem their own.

CHARLES DARWIN (in a letter to Mr Hooker)
Have you ever looked at the common Ash? I find in my Field 3 classes of Trees; viz (1) females (seed-producers) with aborted anthers, & rarely with single good anther (2) Hermaphrodite (seed-producers) in my field few in number (3) Males “bristling” with good-sized pistils & stigmas, which soon drop off & with atrophied ovules: these male trees apparently do not produce a single seed; but I shall watch them— what a gradation!

H.E. BATES (from Through the Woods)
The grey-black buds of the ash are like arrow heads of iron. They all have the common virtues of strength and delicacy. They all share a kind of delicate and subdued beauty. Individually they are no more than charming miniature shapes in dim pink or olive or mauve or grey or sepia. But collectively, in still or sunlit or wind-tossed multitudes, they transform the tree itself into a single colossal swaying and shining bud, an immense burning emblem of spring half-wakened.

JOHN STEWART COLLIS (from The Worm Forgives the Plough)
. . . an ash tree ceased to be only an ash tree in my eyes. And henceforth, when I look across any woods like this I shall see objects of the farm and garden. I shall see tennis rackets, golf sticks, and cricket bats.

OLIVER RACKHAM 
Some trees should continue to be wildlife, retaining their independence from the human species: partly because people’s enthusiasm for trees comes and goes on a shorter timescale than the lifespan of trees; but also because Homo sapiens have proved to be an increasingly unreliable guardian of the world’s trees.

ROGER DEAKIN (from Wildwood)
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 . . . 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.

DAVID NASH (‘Ash Dome’)

GILBERT WHITE
Dear Sir, It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious prejudices: they are sucked in as it were with our mother’s milk; and, growing up with us at a time when they take the fastest hold and make the most lasting impressions, become so interwoven into our very constitutions . . .

In a farm-yard near the middle of this village stands, at this day, a row of pollard-ashes, which, by the seams and long cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that, in former times, they have been cleft asunder. These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures, under a persuasion that, by such a process, the poor babes would be cured of their infirmity. As soon as the operation was over, the tree, in the suffering part, was plastered with loam, and carefully swathed up. If the parts coalesced and soldered together, as usually fell out, where the feat was performed with any adroitness at all, the party was cured; but, where the cleft continued to gape, the operation, it was supposed, would prove ineffectual. Having occasion to enlarge my garden not long since, I cut down two or three such trees, one of which did not grow together.

We have several persons now living in the village, who, in their childhood, were supposed to be healed by this superstitious ceremony, derived down perhaps from our Saxon ancestors, who practised it before their conversion to Christianity.

At the south corner of the Plestor, or area, near the church, there stood, about twenty-years ago, a very old grotesque hollow pollard-ash, which for ages had been looked on with no small veneration as a shrew-ash. Now a shrew-ash is an ash whose twigs or branches, when gently applied to the limbs of cattle, will immediately relieve the pains which a beast suffers from the running of a shrew-mouse over the part affected: for it is supposed that a shrew-mouse is of so baneful and deleterious a nature, that wherever it creeps over a beast, be it horse, cow, or sheep, the suffering animal is afflicted with cruel anguish, and threatened with the loss of the use of the limb. Against this accident, to which they were continually liable, our provident forefathers always kept a shrew-ash at hand, which, when once medicated, would maintain it’s virtue for ever. A shrew-ash was made thus: Into the body of the tree a deep hole was bored with an auger, and a poor devoted shrew-mouse was thrust in alive, and plugged in, no doubt, with several quaint incantations longsinceforgotten. As the ceremonies necessary for such a consecration are no longer understood, all succession is at an end, and no such tree is known to subsist in the manor, or hundred.

 M.R. JAMES (from The Ash-Tree)
. . .
But what seems to have been fatal to the woman was the evidence of the then proprietor of Castringham Hall — Sir Matthew Fell. He deposed to having watched her on three different occasions from his window, at the full of the moon, gathering sprigs ‘from the ash-tree near my house.’ She had climbed into the branches, clad only, in her shift, and was cutting off small twigs with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she did so she seemed to be talking to herself. On each occasion Sir Matthew had done his best to capture the woman, but she had always taken alarm at some accidental noise he had made, and all he could see when he got down to the garden was a hare running across the park in the direction of the village.
. . .
http://youtu.be/HBQTnC1M0iw

6 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Philip Dunsheareply
November 10, 2012 at 01:11 PM

What about M.R. James’ ‘The Ash Tree’? http://littletoller.co.uk/2012/11/the-virtues-of-ash/

Little Tollerreply
November 10, 2012 at 06:11 PM
– In reply to: Philip Dunshea

Thanks for the suggestion; I’ll find an extract. Let me know if you come across others.

Philip Dunsheareply
November 11, 2012 at 08:11 PM
– In reply to: Little Toller

No problem at all. I’ve just remembered that Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey’s lives in Ash Grove cottage while ashore. Here’s a (possibly too tangential) quote from ‘The Mauritius Command’, ch. 1:

‘…want of a ship, the failure of his agent, his ignorance of business, and the sharp practice of an attorney had reduced him to half-pay and no more; and in fact his cottage lay on the northern slopes of the Downs, not far from Chilton Admiral, and the rising hill shut out all the sea, together with most of the sun. This cottage, though picturesque among its ash trees and even romantic, ideally suited for two in the early days of his marriage, was neither large nor comfortable; it had always been low-ceilinged, pokey and inconvenient, but now that it also contained two babies, a niece, a ruined mother-in-law , some large pieces of furniture from Mapes Court, Mrs Williams’s former home, and a couple of servants, it was something like the Black Hole of Calcutta, except that whereas the Hole was hot, dry and airless, Ashgrove Cottage let in draughts from all sides, while the damp rising from the floor joined the leaks in the roof to form pools in many of the rooms.’

Adam Winsonreply
November 14, 2012 at 09:11 PM

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. William Cobbett

Richard Carter, FCDreply
November 17, 2012 at 02:11 PM

Charles Darwin to his close friend the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, 23-Apr-1863:
http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-4122

Have you ever looked at the common Ash? I find in my Field 3 classes of Trees; viz (1) females (seed-producers) with aborted anthers, & rarely with single good anther (2) Hermaphrodite (seed-producers) in my field few in number (3) Males “bristling” with good-sized pistils & stigmas, which soon drop off & with atrophied ovules: these male trees apparently do not produce a single seed; but I shall watch them— what a gradation!

Alex Hukereply
November 19, 2012 at 08:11 PM

Perhaps not such an illustrious output as those quoted above, but daily useful in keeping warm.

The firewood poem was written by Celia Congreve, is believed to be first published in THE TIMES newspaper on March 2nd 1930.

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ’tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

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