The trees are coming in to leaf
Like something almost being said
What sort of trees did Larkin mean? Sycamores? Oaks? Limes? "The trees" - "the unresting castles" the trees of the urban spaces, around the parks and cemeteries., the markers of the change of seasons for the urbanite in the northern hemisphere above a certain latitude. There is no natural organic form like them - not grass or flowers or lichen - growing huge, like crags and rock stacks. When old their bark will be riven and ravaged but they still produce the small and delicate twigs, flowers and seeds. Individuals trees in full shape are magnificent and can become the name of a place - One Tree Hill; Two Pines; Sevenoaks.
Now we hear of a fungal disease that is supposed to wipe out the ash trees within a decade. Ash make up thirty percent of the trees in Britain - eighty million trees. We hear of it moving across Europe as in earlier centuries we heard of the plague.
As forestry and plant health experts met at a summit convened by the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that ash dieback had been confirmed in the wild in six new counties: Berkshire, Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Sussex and Yorkshire.
Young ash saplings next to ancient ash, Roseburn Park
So it is moving up north.
Last weekend was sunny and I walked to my local park, Roseburn Park, to check out the trees. At certain times of the year some trees will stand out. A row of pink flowering cherries at one edge give a pretty display in the spring and in autumn some fine beeches show gold leaves at this time of the year - beeches with their straight silver trunks and spreading canopy are everyone's favourite stately tree. For the rest they are amorphous "trees" that I have never bothered to distinguish much.
Roseburn Park lies between Murrayfield Stadium and the Water of Leith. It's mostly playing fields, with an avenue of trees down the centre, and another line of trees beside the Water of Leith. I cycle along there often. I have got to know some of the trees - some huge old willows, one that used to have a branch overhanging the river on which kids swung and elders where we picked berries once for elder wine. I have noticed the ash trees because they are the last to come into leaf, and I would see their buds break into black flower clusters.
Ash twigs with black buds
This weekend I paid more attention and noted some sycamores, a beautiful aspen with yellow trembling leaves right by the river and the ash - some with yellow leaves, some bare, a very big old one covered in creeper with a seamed trunk and some young sapling off-shoots. The ash's frond leaves and the black pencil tip buds and knobbly twigs make it easy to identify. These trees looked healthy - no black leaves, or stains on the bark - and what dead leaves I saw were natural at this time of the year. One was hanging with bunches of seeds.
Aspens by Water of Leith
On this stretch of river bank I would say that about one tree out of fifteen is an ash. There are limes, beech, a Lombardy poplar, sycamore, willows, hawthorn, elder and what I thought (and hoped) were young elms, those that had evolved to resist Dutch Elm disease that destroyed so many trees in the seventies and eighties.
What I read about this ash disease makes me very sad. It spreads by spores and felling the diseased trees will mean that there is no chance for those resistant to the fungus to evolve. Suggestions that it can be checked by eg walkers in the forests cleaning their boots of spore-carrying earth seem fairly feeble. The latest news is that it is probably too late to save them.
I was born where the default tree is evergreen and narrow-leafed and the forest - "the bush" we call it - is dense and jungly. The European broadleaf wood with its groves, the trunks like pillars, its flooring of fallen leaves, its spring and autumn colours, its bluebells and wild garlic, its dappled shade- it's one of the things that I've never got over. It's the same delight every spring.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,Except for the graceful ash.
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.