Stumps and trees

Yesterday I ventured for a post-lockdown visit to Batsford Arboretum (a wildlife park for trees) in north Gloucestershire. Bowling along in the sunshine, it struck me as odd to drive to a place to see trees, when they were all around me, gloriously bursting into bud. I began to look and enjoy, but then I noticed a troubling and very sad thing. In numerous stretches of hedgerow along the ancient Fosse Way were large gaps where trees should be – and instead: fresh stumps. In one place a whole copse was missing. It didn’t take long for me to ‘twig’ (pun unintended). Ash dieback.

This blight is sweeping through Britain destroying our ash trees, our third most prolific tree species.

When I first heard, a few years ago, that this disease had struck our ash trees through saplings brought in from the Netherlands, my first thought was: why on earth would you be bone-headed enough to import ash saplings? They grow everywhere. Or they did.

Now, on seeing the consequences of this a few years later, my thought was again one of incredulous anger. Why on earth would you cut down all our ash trees just because they have a disease – which only ash trees can catch? Again, here was human folly at its most lamentable. I have not seen an ash tree ailing because of ash die back. I have not seen one at all for a long time. Presumably because local councils, bored during Covid lockdown, decided to send out their staff to cut down all the ash trees before they even caught the damn disease.

I tried to trace the causal train back. Was the person who ordered diseased trees from the Netherlands really an incompetent idiot? Probably not. He worked for the landscaping department of a construction company, and the only ‘supplier’ of ash trees (not including nature of course) was in the Netherlands. The grievous, sorry tale is caused by our society’s general tendency to ignore and exploit the natural environment. Rather than choosing a place to build in between the prolifically growing ash trees, and leaving them where they are, we must rase the whole area, pack roads and buildings into it, and then ‘landscape’ it – with infected trees from our supplier in the Netherlands. Look where this efficiency has got us.

The wrong-headed behaviour at the other end of the story, the tree felling, reveals another morally questionable attitude: the demand for tidiness and perfection. Rather than tolerate some ailing trees in our landscape, still enjoying their colour and shade, and only felling them if they become dangerous, we make it intolerable to have imperfect trees about the place. So they must be destroyed and disposed of – airbrushed out. Why can we not learn to live with imperfection and see the beauty in it? If it is imperfection caused by our own flawed thinking, maybe we OUGHT to see it.

As I was thinking all this, I passed by a recently renamed pub, The Stump. It seemed likely to me that this was not a coincidence.

Arriving at the arboretum, I was able to forget all this for a few hours and indulge my love of trees to the full – the Japanese cherries, in particular, being in full bloom. Then, at last, I came to the Peace Pagoda.

I entered the pagoda, and at its heart, what should I find but – a tree stump. This was all that remained of a huge elm tree that had been growing since 1750 and, we were reminded, had lived through all the wars, and all the monarchs’ reigns since then, until 1975 when ‘it was felled because it had Dutch elm disease’. Note that it was felled not because it was dangerous but because it ‘had’ this disease from – why is it always the Netherlands? Anyway, it had this disease. Maybe it would have recovered, or partially recovered. Maybe it would have pushed out new, more resistant shoots. This policy of chopping down, other than bringing to an end that tree’s grand life, has done what for the the elm tree population exactly? Elms are virtually extinct in the UK. Presumably present policies by councils and landowners will ensure that the same thing happens to the ash.

So if you have an ash tree, shhhh. Don’t tell a soul. Don’t cut it down. It will probably get through this – and, if not, its saplings probably will.

Let’s hope that the time comes when we learn to live with nature and respect it; tolerate messiness (often of our own making), and realise that what takes only minutes to destroy is a piece of natural heritage and history. If we don’t, then maybe one day the dryads will come to destroy us, even though we are only a little bit sick.

Follow this link to support the Woodland Trust in combating ash dieback.

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