As everyone knows, ash dieback has arrived and may wipe out tens of millions of ash that make up about 30% of Britain's trees. Even for those who couldn't tell an ash from an oak, this is a terrible thought. Britain is an urban nation and its people use the woods and countryside for refreshment. The favourite activity among the British people is a stroll in the country. Some of the those strolling will be gardeners, or know something of botany and be able to name the trees, but many will only see the "trees" - bare and budding, green or yellow leafed, according to the season.
Larkin, who caught British attitude to their churches (affection, residual wonder, ignorance) in Church Going also caught the city-dweller's view of trees. "The trees are coming in to leaf" he says about the signs of spring approaching that the workers in a city will comment on along with the lengthening days and the crocuses in the park. What trees he doesn't specify - oaks, beech, lime or whatever else grows in a city park. Their relations to human beings are symbolic - that of life renewing - begin "afresh, afresh, afresh."
An earlier rural age, when writing about trees, knew their names and properties - the uses of the timber and the fruit. So in Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene you have one of those lists that medieval poets loved so much, whether of birds, animals, sins, virtues or mythological figures. His people take shelter in a grove:-
Much can they prayse the trees so straight and hy,
The sayling Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
The vine-prop Elme, the Poplar never dry,
The builder Oake, sole king of forrests all,
The Aspine good for staves, the Cypresse funerall.
The Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerours
And Poets sage, the Firre that weepeth still,
The Willow worne of forlorne Paramours,
The Eugh obedient to the benders will,
The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill,
The Mirrhe sweete bleeding in the bitter wound,
The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,
The fruitfull Olive, and the Platane round,
The carver Holme, the Maple seeldom inward sound.
"The Ash for nothing ill" - I thought that faint praise like calling someone "harmless" - then read this:-
The resilient and ubiquitous ash has always been respected for its benevolent or healing properties. At least three British saints threw their wooden staffs to the ground to see them sprout miraculously into ash trees.
Among the rituals associated with the tree is a widespread practice involving the passing of an injured or ill child through a cleft deliberately made in the tree, which subsequently heals over, as does the child.
There is usually a utilitarian aspect to such veneration, and ash wood has been used to make ploughs, axles, blocks (on sea and land), planks and all manner of sporting accoutrements, from tennis racquets to oars.
The ash then is the healing tree and the making tree.
Spenser's tree list is not what someone could realistically observe in a forest. Olives and beech are unlikely to co-exist on the same terrain. These are trees that are known and trees read about jumbled together, but it's an educated man of his time's view of a tree. They are fine to look at and, being useful, are woven in to human life.
But then came the Romantics and trees became part of Nature with a capital "N". Hopkins in Binsley Poplars.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
The tender and fragile country that needs protection. It is a beloved being under assault from humanity, its foe. But the rural scene - were these trees being cleared for factories, housing developments or as part of woodland management? The "rural scene" is English countryside, where trees are felled, coppiced, pollarded and generally managed. Felling trees is not necessarily wanton destruction. But there are only two attitudes towards Nature in Hopkins - being her friend and fan or her destroying foe. We are here, the trees over there as separate being.
The complete tree-worshipper was Tolkein.
Frodo . . . laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: Never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree's skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter. It was the delight of the living tree itself.
Tolkein's forests and trees are his most atmospheric writing - whether the gloom of Mirkwood, the malice of the willows in the Old Forest, and reached its apotheosis in the Forest of Fangorn with the Ents, who are half tree and half human:-
Some recalled the chestnut: brown-skinned Ents with large splayfingered hands and short thick legs. Some recalled the ash: tall straight grey Ents with many-fingered hands and long legs; some the fir (the tallest Ents), and others the birch, the rowan and the linden."Tolkein said of how he was inspired by trees:-
One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls."
From the introduction to Tree and Leaf
So he gets fictional revenge on the cutters and loppers when the Ents and their arboreal infantry charge as a heavy brigade on Isengard, the evil fortress of the tree-killer Saruman. The tree-men rip down the hellhole of stone and metal like a tree's roots can split stone. Nature takes revenge on the industrial revolution.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings the tree-killer Saruman has continued his evil work by felling trees in The Shire and replacing them with polluting machinery. He is of course routed and the trees finally prevail.
Tolkein's forests are rather empty of other forms of life - very few birds (which a medieval poet would have had perching on every branch ) and scuttling mammals that I can find even in our fragmentary woods. A more modern sensibility (post Rachel Carson) that loves the natural world sees trees as habitats and that the loss of swathes of trees is not just those trees gone but the ecosystem they sustained of birds, mammals, fungi, and invertebrates. A whole world has been lost.
Lost worlds is of course the background of Lord of the Rings. We are constantly told that Middle Earth has dwindled from an unfallen time when the Elves taught Ents to talk, and the warriors and heroes of this age are picking up the pieces from an earlier grander time. But this is fantasy for the child in us, not grown up tragedy. Gandalf falls into a deep crevasse, everyone weeps and sings laments, but then he comes back to life. (Can you imagine Hamlet springing back to his feet, or Lydgate in Middlemarch losing his obstructive wife and making scientific breakthroughs after all?) Along with the pseudo elegaic tone you get the fairy tale ending of all being put right. The returning Hobbits thwart Saruman and Sam's magic powder makes saplings grow at four times their normal rate.
I remember the yellow marks like the cross on a plague victim's door on the trunks of elms which meant they would be destroyed. A couple of weeks ago I saw a wych elm sapling in my local park - but I won't ever see the great elms again. "Many fair things will be lost," says Elrond. Many fair things have been lost - hedgehogs and sparrows, hedgerows and elms - and now the ash tree. A percentage of the trees will be resistant to ash dieback and will grow again - but at a much slower pace than the Shire did. Evolution is a magic that takes time. A species may prevail, but the individual will not be there to see it.