Ashes to Ashes

 

By Michael Blencowe

 

The fireworks will be hailing over Sussex on Bonfire Night illuminating our towns and villages. But an integral part of this landscape may be about to fizzle out and vanish forever.  For our ash trees judgement day has arrived.

 

An ash tree’s bare branches curve, swirl and sag looking like an inked thumbprint on the winter sky. Arched twigs reach out like bony, beckoning fingers each tipped with a dirty black fingernail. These black buds are unique to ash trees and in spring they’ll burst into a spray of purple flowers like a freeze-framed firework explosion.

Ash trees have no shame. They love to stand naked. They are the last tree to put on their leafy green gown in the spring and the first to throw it to the ground in the autumn. In winter gales their grey, lean limbs flail and sway like that crazy old man you see at a music festival dancing shirtless and alone. Yet there’s something eternally youthful about even the oldest ash. They can elastically sashay through a storm with suppleness, lightness and flexibility.

 

Maybe this invincibility is why the ash was celebrated as the ‘tree of life’ and bestowed with magical properties that purported to heal lame children, defend us against snakes and cure anything from chronic wind  to the bubonic plague. Whenever we needed a wood that would absorb a hard blow without splintering we have turned to ash. For hammer handles, hockey sticks, oars, rackets, skis, cogs, cartwheels and car frames, its tough timber provided us with resilience and strength. But now, finally, the ash tree is about to be dealt a blow that it cannot withstand.

 

In 1992 a fungal infection – Chalara fraxinea-  which attacked ash trees was discovered in Poland. This botanical Ebola spread on westerly winds across Europe, its airborne fungal spores dusting and devastating ash trees everywhere. In 2012 an imported ash tree in a Cheshire nursery was Britain’s first victim. Now infected saplings are being discovered in woodlands across Sussex.

 

We have yet to discover how our ash trees will react to this fungal assassin. There’s a chance that the ancestry of England’s ash trees may offer some genetic resistance. But over the coming years we may witness an arboreal Armageddon similar to the one which wiped out our elms at the end of the last century.

 

On November 6th stand on the ashes of your local bonfire and look around at all the ash trees which make up the landscape. Imagine how our countryside’s identity will change if ash dieback takes hold.  Is that the wind making the ash branches quiver or are these trees trembling in fear as they sense something approaching?

 

For more information: contact Sussex Wildlife

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