The ancients that were the tree of life

Ancient trees
Ancient trees

YELLOW of ash, orange of beech, tawny of horse chestnut and mahogany of oak – the autumn leaves begin to fall.

Bonjour tristesse was the title of that 1950s novel that describes the days of leaf-fall that seem to be a metaphor for our own lives as the sun sinks lower into the horizon.

Personally I find the shorter days and starrier nights and the great colours on the trees gives me a sense of excitement that probably is a throw-back to the Stone Age.

The air is crisper, the wood is suddenly full of migrants from the north and the wild geese arrive in the harbour.

But now leaf die-back has an unhappier tale to tell as it can show sudden wilting of the complete tree.

We have had horse chestnut dieback, oak wilt, beech bark disease and now a fungal attack from the east on our ash trees.

When the elms went in the 1970s we lost precious emblems of our landscape. Thank goodness artists such as Edward Seago and Rowland Hilder captured the essence of English countryside with the elms as symbolic as watermarks in legal documents.

The Sussex and Somerset countryside are a lot worse for that shattering time when the giants came tumbling down and have never been replaced. The thought of there being no ash trees soon is just as distressing.

Although East Anglia has suffered it may just possibly be that further west does not because the climates are different. They have more the dry continental climate to our more Atlantic.

Also, oak wilt and beech bark diseases did not have the effect that was feared.

Oaks have suffered around Gatwick but that may be due to air pollution.

Many on the chalk do have short lives due to the flint pan and that can seem to have roots in disease. Until now, ash trees which occupy one third of our natural forests have been safe.

We don’t rely on them as heavily as we did up to fifty years ago for industry. But the are vital to the wildlife ecosystem.

Once they were used in making car bodies, aircraft frames, farm machinery, sports goods such as hockey sticks and tennis racquets, archery bows and ramrods.

Today old ashes have hollows for owls and stock doves, great tits and nuthatches. Their keys feed woodmice and marsh tits.

Their canopies are favoured for the breeding behaviour of purple hairstreak butterflies.

As they age they are vital feeding centres for woodpeckers. To the ancients they were the Tree of Life, the Yggdrassil of the Norsemen.

Unhappily, it is from those Scandinavian countries that the disease seems to be coming.

Richard Williamson