Sometimes things can hide from us in plain view. The ash tree was one of the last trees I remember learning to identify when I was young. You learn horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts quickly for obvious reasons. You couldn’t reach the age of ten without being able to recognise the acorns, lobed leaf and full crown of an oak, or even, perhaps, the classical shape of the beech leaf that flares so brightly in autumn. Then there are the big stars of sycamore leaves sometimes larger than the span of our hands; the riverside weeping of the willow; pine cones from pine trees and hazel nuts from hazel trees. It took me a while to connect sloes to blackthorn but picking hawthorn berries with my dad to make wine soon fixed hawthorn in my mind. I do not, even now, know trees well, but I learned the basics young and tree knowledge, like the knowledge of certain routes and places, became a part of my psychological extension into the world. This is true for most of us fortunate enough to have had such curiosity nurtured within us.
Some years on though, in my mid teens, I remember beginning to notice another tree everywhere and I didn’t know its name. I had walked out on my own to camp in the woods along the North Downs Way one wet spring. I’d noticed the tree all day and when I came to set out my bivvy bag it was underneath a whole row of them overlooking the M20 in a valley below. They seemed to stare down drowsily after a soaking of rain. I remember thinking how strange it was that I could have omitted my whole life to learn the name of a tree that was really in every copse, beside every path, at the edge of every field. I remember feeling a little embarrassed, but I got to know the tree very well over those two days. The hole in my knowledge helped me to look and see in a deliberate way.
I remember thinking how well it suited these trees to be wet after rain and dripping. Drops slid off the pointed leaf tips, or waited, bending a scene of the traffic in the valley below. Ash trees have an oddly aqueous form. Of course, this has more to do with their relationship to sunshine and air than to water though. The sound of the wind in an ash tree is highly distinctive. Not quite like the sound of the wind in poplars – it is lighter, faster, closer to the sky. Ash leaves seem to play like a shoal of fish up through the currents of the wind. They do not drag on it. When you’re young and camping on the edge of a wood on your own, that huge, clean, breathy rush is comforting. It is the sound of two great animate forms pushing at one another and finding a give, soft and generous and open. That sound stayed with me.
A century ago we might have found ourselves coming into contact with the ash tree on a daily basis. According to Mrs. Greive’s Modern Herbal (1931) the bark has been used in decoctions to treat fever and rheumatism, its leaves have been infused as a diuretic and laxative, and the flat bunches of seeds known as ‘keys’ might be pickled as an alternative to capers. It is the wood of the tree, though, that we might be more familiar with. Even today it is still a highly popular wood, but cheaper plastics and light weight metals are replacing some of the more traditional uses. If you have handled a hockey stick or a pool cue today though, or a walking stick or a wooden handled tool like an axe; if you have been pulling oars on a river or climbing on an old wooden ladder, then you have probably been working with ash in your hands. As Sue Clifford and Angela King tell us, ‘its resilience and shock absorbency’ make it ideal for these kinds of tools.
But how many of us are aware of precisely what material our tools are made from? Enthusiasts perhaps, like the American who knows the ash tree from which he cuts his baseball bat. Or those involved in making – the steaming and bending of ash poles, say, and their fashioning into handles for umbrellas. But for most of us, unfortunately, the close, pale grain of the ash is often just ‘wood’. Once again, it seems, even after it has been cut down, the ash tree hides in plain view. Again we find ourselves in need of waking up to the particular qualities of this beautiful and useful tree.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger has suggested that one of the differences between a tool and a work of art is that the material a tool is made from recedes almost to invisibility beneath the use it affords, while in a work of art the material is projected to the fore. We do not notice the ash in the handle of the oar as we pull against it, he might argue, but in David Nash’s Ash Dome we are made highly aware of it (even as a living thing). Perhaps there is something of the artist in us all then when we look more carefully at the tools in our hands and wonder about their qualities and their origin. Perception itself can be an act of creativity and dialogue, kindling the qualities of the earth into our consciousness. Sometimes it takes an event as dramatic and devastating as the threat of chalara, ash die back, for us to appreciate something as beautiful and ubiquitous as the ash tree.
“Ubiquitous” is the word too. Today referring to something seen everywhere, it has a connotation of ordinary, but once it had a connotation of divine omnipresence as well. The combination of these two meanings, in fact, has a very striking resonance when thinking of ash trees. The ash, of course, is the world tree Yggdrasill in Norse mythology. Its branches fill the sky and its three roots run to the gods and to the frost giants and to an underworld of ice. The centrepiece of this divine architecture of nine intersecting worlds, Yggdrasill was not so much a tree in the world as an immanent property that pervades all worlds and holds them together, more like gravity or time. In fact, worlds can come into being at all because Yggdrasill exists in the first place. Lest we forget then, not just tools but whole worlds emerge out of the ordinary ash.
As the world tree, we might expect Yggdrasill to be as tough as it is large, but this is not the case in the Icelandic Edda. At the heart of the mythology of this ash tree is a story of vulnerability, as if to remind us of the strain with which our disparate worlds pull apart, forgetting what holds them together. An eagle nests in the top of the tree; three stags run about in its branches biting them and eating the leaves; its sides are said to rot; and a nest of serpents writhe beneath it, the largest of whom, Niðhoggr, gnaws continuously at one of its roots. There is even a squirrel that runs up and down the trunk whose sole purpose seems to be to carry malicious messages between the eagle and the serpent Niðhoggr. In the Norse myths the world ash is constantly under attack.
The only reason Yggdrasill survives all of this is because of the “norns”, three women whose purpose it is to weave our human fates, but who also tend to the tree daily. Snorri Sturluson tells us how they ‘take water from the well each day and with it the mud that lies round the well and pour it up over the ash so that its branches may not rot or decay.’ This mud is the ‘shining loam’ that the ash tree is soaked with in the Poetic Edda. Mud from a well, whose water ‘is so holy that all things that come into that well go as white as the membrane that lies round the inside of an eggshell.’ It is the norns who keep Yggdrasill alive, those who remember to care for a tree both ubiquitous and endangered.
I have recently moved to a place with a meadow, on the far side of which there are several elm trees that have survived the twentieth century. I didn’t recognise them at first but then why would I? I grew up in the wake of Dutch Elm Disease so almost never saw the trees. Nonetheless I remember learning about the disease with horror and was fired with an almost archaeological fascination by reference to elms in poems. It is said that elms traditionally carry a sense of foreboding in literature, but it is hard to feel that with so few of the trees about. What always stood out to me was their height, something that was felt in a poem’s shifts of perspective much more strongly than in any pictures of the tree in books. There was Wordsworth’s ‘brotherhood of lofty elms’ but more than that I remember Edward Thomas’s short poem ‘Thaw’ which I have just found again:
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
No poem has made me want to climb a tree more. It gave the elms an otherworldly height. When I moved here near to these elms on Purlieu Meadow I could hardly contain my excitement. I went and sat just to look at them and enjoyed the way they towered over the grass, ‘a brotherhood of lofty elms’. I am grateful to the poets for these images that have conserved something vivid about a species of tree that I might have grown completely blind to otherwise.
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.