Celebrating the history of the beloved ash tree.
As a small child, my mother was taken to the Lake District, in the hope that she would have a better chance of survival under the shelter of the northwestern hills than at home on the flat, overexposed coast of Lincolnshire. It was early 1940. It would have been a grand adventure, were it not for the constant reminders that things were not as they should be. It was not just the absence of fathers, uncles, brothers, but the presence in the hotel grounds of oddly damaged things: a blind cat, a broken wheelbarrow, a man who had been at Dunkirk and did not seem quite like other grown-ups. What my mother remembers most vividly is a young woman, pale in face and dress, who spent her days sitting outside, staring up into the branches of the tall ash tree and drawing what she saw. When the sun came out, her pencil lines darkened, turning the tracery of tiny branches into black lace veils. She never spoke, but day after day she looked up and re-created the impossible patterns on her large, flat sheets of paper. What did the ash tree mean to that unknown woman? Or to my mother, in whose agitated, impressionable mind it took root and has remained ever since?
The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods, and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down toward the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree—everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrow with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendor of more eye-catching trees.
The grace of the ash tree has always appealed to artists. John Constable immortalized the trees around his home at Dedham in Essex. In paintings such as The Cornfield and Flatford Mill, ashes are predominant in the foreground, their feathery leaves highlighted by tiny brushstrokes. According to his close friend and biographer C. R. Leslie, Constable would gaze on almost any tree “with an ecstasy of delight,” but his real favorite was the ash. Leslie recalls Constable’s profound distress over the felling of an ash tree in Hampstead. The ash had inspired one of his most beautiful drawings, but Constable announced in a public lecture that “she died of a broken heart.” He pointed accusingly to a parish notice forbidding vagrancy that had been nailed unceremoniously to the trunk as the cause of his beloved ash’s death. “The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace,” he told his audience, for almost as soon as the notice went up, some of the top branches withered. Within a year or so, the entire tree had become paralyzed, and so this “beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board.” Constable’s indignation over the fate of “this young lady” shows that his delicate drawing was not a mere nature study: it was an expression of love.
Those looking for love have traditionally found hope in the leaves of the ash. But though ash trees offer promises of future bliss, love is often mixed with less happy feelings. In his winter poem “Neutral Tones,” Thomas Hardy’s disappointment in love registers in the gray, fallen leaves of the ash tree that witnesses his last rendezvous. The lesson “that love deceives” is etched in the memory of “Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree, / And a pond edged with grayish leaves.” The ash tree also stands as a reminder of lost love in the well-known Welsh song “The Ash Grove”:
Down yonder green valley, where streamlets meander,
When twilight is fading I pensively rove
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander,
Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove;
’Twas there, while the blackbird was cheerfully singing
I first met that dear one, the joy of my heart!
Around us for gladness the bluebells were ringing,
Ah! then little thought I how soon we should part.
There are various versions of the song, by different lyricists and artists, but each tells of love remembered and living only in memory. “The Ash Grove” is remembered, in turn, in a poem by Edward Thomas, one of the many casualties of World War I. Like Constable, Thomas’s favorite tree was the ash, which had taken such strong root in his mind that even when he found himself in the least promising circumstances, an encounter with ash trees was charged with restorative power. The poem begins with the melancholy sight of dead and dying trees, but, in spite of this, the poet recalls, “they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.” The trees are not those he knew before, but because they are also ashes, this grove, moribund though it may be, “can bring the same tranquility” as those of his past. Though hardly more alive than the dead trees, the poet experiences something of an epiphany as he wanders among the ashes:
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.
Everything is tentative and understated, but the faint stirrings gradually grow stronger, until the poem ends with a moment when the past, unwilling to die, floods the present with sudden light and an unprepossessing clump of stricken trees becomes magnified into something extraordinary. For an instant, love is no longer lost, but found, uncrossed, among the ashes.
The softness of the ash has always marked it out as a tree of comfort and healing. Wordsworth had fond memories of the mature ash at the cottage near Hawkshead where he was sent to live as a schoolboy, following the death of his parents. In The Prelude, he recalled how he had lain awake
on breezy nights, to watch
The moon in splendor couched among the leaves
Of a tall Ash, that near our Cottage stood,
And watched her with fixed eyes, while to and from
In the dark summit of the moving Tree
She rocked with every impulse of the wind.
Many turned to the healing ash for more practical remedies. Despite the ash tree’s serpentine branches, it was known to be the enemy of snakes. The roman natural history writer Pliny the Elder, observing the antipathy of snakes to these trees (so extreme that they would not even venture under their shadow), recommended ash leaves as an antidote to snakebites. He even conducted an experiment to prove the point, placing a viper beside a small fire within a ring of ash leaves and concluding that the snake would sooner run into the flames than into leaves of this kind. Nicholas Culpeper, many centuries later, endorsed Pliny’s advice on snakebites, but also recommended ash leaves for more common complaints, “to abate the greatness of those that are too gross or fat,” as well as for dropsy and gout. When infused into white wine, they became a treatment for jaundice or kidney stones. The bark of the tree, too, was used as a tonic for the liver and spleen or arthritis. Even warts could be cured by a pinprick, as long as the pin was then stuck into an ash tree.
Wherever people have lived and worked, the ash tree was a constant companion and helpmate. Its special place in men’s hearts rested not only on its physical beauty or medicinal value, but, as is so often the case, on its ready supply of very versatile timber. The ash tree is probably the most adaptable resource of all for those working with woods. Its toughness and peculiar elasticity mean that ash wood can be shaped into not only relatively straight and simple constructions such as sledges and skis, but also in to the least plantlike objects, including shepherd’s crooks, walking sticks, bentwood chairs, and even wagon wheels. The shapeliness of ash branches lent itself to such items, while the wood’s flexibility also allowed for steam treatments to accentuate the natural curves.
Unlike some old, deciduous forest trees, such as the oak, ashes are not renowned for their longevity, most surviving no longer than a couple hundred years. When regularly sliced in a coppice woodland, however, an ash tree will continue to send up tall, straight poles of living green, even when its heartwood has completely rotted away: at the Bradfield woods in Suffolk, the stools of coppiced ash, spreading from the ground like a great broom head, are thought to be a thousand years old. The ash’s abundant keys lead to such rapid propagation that there hardly seems a need to preserve the older trees, because there is always an abundance of ashlings. Since the ash is tolerant of almost any kind of soil, it springs up all over as one of the most familiar trees in Britain. Until now.
The news that Chalara fraxinea, the fungus that has proved fatal to so much of Europe’s ash population, is now making inroads into Britain is chilling indeed. “Ash dieback” has already devastated woodlands in Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Baltic states, and looks alarmingly set on sweeping through the British Isles. There is something deeply sinister about a mysterious fungus that singles out a particular species and kills off its young. In the last book he completed before his death in 2014, the veteran botanist Oliver Rackham cast a cool eye on the likely effects of ash dieback, observing that by the time people have noticed the presence of a deadly plant disease it is too late to take action: “the latest year in which to react to Chalara was 1995.” Defense against plant pathogens requires forward thinking, he argues, pointing out in a far from reassuring conclusion that the tardy response to Chalara probably did not matter much in any case, because a far more devastating thread was approaching in the shape of the emerald ash borer beetle. This bright green bark beetle, Agrilus planipennis, native to eastern Asia, has already destroyed ash woods across the United States and Siberia, so in the era of globalization, its arrival in Britain is almost unavoidable—unless, in an irony of natural history, the aftermath of Chalara provides a bleak cordon sanitaire.
Now that ash dieback has been identified and the dangers of the emerald ash borer recognized, we can still hope that the strenuous efforts to contain these threats will prove effective, that probably cases will be spotted and reported, that some of the resistant trees will survive and that, instead of a phoenix, the ash itself will rise again. For it is deeply distressing to be faced with the very real prospect of a future in which so many familiar wood-lined roads, green parks, and sheltered towns will be left, bereft and bare, while their once perennial companions are known only from paintings, poems, and old songs.
Adapted from The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford, published in September by Yale University Press.
Fiona Stafford is professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author and presenter of “The Meaning of Trees” for BBC Radio 3’s The Essay.