Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Book review: The Ash Tree

The Ash Tree

Oliver Rackham

Dovedale in the 19th C*
Everyone knows ash trees. They are one of those trees that are simply there. Seldom huge and spectacular, or ancient and excessively gnarled or especially anything. We don’t generally eat their nuts or play with them or watch for them or decorate our houses with their leaves. But ash trees are always there. Ash is a tree that doesn’t quite. It produces wood but not that hard or strong or long lasting timber. That wood rots quickly. It doesn’t burn well. Its useful but doesn’t give building timber. It makes good cups. Good tool handles. Deer eat its coppice shoots. If they last long enough, those shoots sprout leaves that were used as good winter fodder for livestock. The wood bends well when steamed. The Ash Tree’s chapters on ash biology and its place in our history make fascinating reading: endless contradictions. Ash trees often don’t live long enough to really become individual landscape features as some yews and oaks do but “ash” turns up as an element in more place names than any other tree. Ash trees are just there. In 2013, as the hysteria about Ash Dieback was running through the media, I visited the upper Dove Valley here in the Peak District and looking out over a beloved landscape, I realised that almost all the big trees, those majestic figures in the middle of fields, on field corners, by the ruined barn over there, the fallen cottage here at the break of the slope are ash trees. I cannot imagine this dale without them, but soon they might not be there any more.

caves in Dovedale
The hysteria around the awareness of Ash Dieback Disease in 2012 was the push that produced this book and running through the slender but very tasty volume is the threat of what may – or may not – come with a return of Ash Dieback (which often doesn’t actually kill the trees) and grimmer warnings of other troubles whirring closer on beetle wings. The Emerald Ash Borer is the one to worry about.

The AshTree is good. It calmly and  lovingly fills in the background. It spreads a canopy over ash tree ecology, and unravels historical contexts. This is a book by someone who really knows what he is talking about, a long time champion of the British landscape. Rackham is – was (he died last year) – one of the leading ecologists of the last 20th Century. His works are classics and if you haven’t read books like his History of the Countryside then, really….(I know, you’re waiting til they make the film). There is a sense, however, of a weary warrior. People like Rackham have given the same or similar warnings for years, to be ignored or dismissed over and again or to see recommendations so diluted down that money would have been far better spent elsewhere. The underlying politics makes fascinating and frustrating reading too and gives much to think about – not least a quick woodsman’s axe swing at tree-planting schemes.

Monsall Dale, 1808 with presumed ash trees

This book is a study of a tree and as such it is an interesting and rewarding read but as a study in the sensible approach to landscape conservation it is almost more intriguing and leaves me wanting to throw things.

The Ash Tree, Oliver Rackham, Littletoller, 2015; ISBN 978-1-908213-42-6

It also reminds me of:
Wych Elm: a wonderful exploration of this tough bristly branch of the elm family from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, and

The Black Poplar by Fiona Cooper. I love Black Poplars. they have a powerful presence and are trees that always call em to just stop and sit beside them for a while
*there is a sort of logic to the pictures - images of Dovedale in the early 1800s. There are ash woods across most of these slopes now

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