27/06/2020: Ash dieback is a pain in the arse

[I wrote the following exactly one year before the previous post on this blog, and entered it into a competition I saw posted by a Welsh NGO on Twitter. I was one of several winners (I don’t know how many). I got a hundred pounds for it I think. They said in September 2020 that they were looking into publishing the winners in a book, but that was the last I heard of it. So I am publishing it here for posterity.]

For a few months now, my coccyx has ached every time I sit down. It’s a minor complaint, but a persistent one. And I know I only have myself to blame.

About one month into lockdown I decided to measure all the trees in our garden. To measure each, note its species and precise location, and to use an aggregated species-specific formula to estimate its age.

Why? Well, the weather was good, if that counts as a reason. And my two primary-school-aged daughters were getting bored of sitting at the dining table practising long-division and learning about Iron Age Pembrokeshire. Of course they would soon get bored of measuring trees too: a month into lockdown and the novelty of home-schooling was fast fading; they missed talking to people their own age.

“You’re lucky,” I told them. “Most children don’t have two and a half acres of wet woodland and a disused woollen mill to explore. Let alone a medieval church right next door. Imagine if you were locked down in a flat with no garden.”

This chastisement did little to allay their boredom. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by my own argument: much of the garden is impassably colonized by brambles, the disused woollen mill is quite dangerous, and the medieval church has been shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides, I distinctly remembered my mother telling me when I was their age that I had to eat my stew/baked potato/egg curry because there were children starving in Africa. I couldn’t see the causal relation; and I’d soon learnt not to suggest we put the food in an envelope and post it to them.

There are 670 trees in my garden. I know this for two reasons. The first is that I have arbitrarily decided that any woody plant whose principal stem measures at least 10cm in circumference at breast height qualifies as a tree. The second is that I have measured 670 of these plants in the 2.5 acres of wet woodland around our house in Mynachlogddu, on the east bank of Afon Wern in the Preseli region of north Pembrokeshire.

We’ve been here three years as of this summer. I’m 37, and it’s the first place I’ve really felt at home since my family left Anglesey for South England when I was 14. Maybe that’s why I started measuring the trees? I’m not sure though: for the five years before we moved to Mynachlogddu we lived just 15 minutes’ drive southwest, on the outskirts of the parish of Walton East, near Llys-y-Fran reservoir. There was a European ash tree by our garden gate, and for five years I neither knew nor cared what it was – let alone measured it.

“Not sure what that it actually,” I remember telling our gardener. “Think it’s a sycamore.”

“It’s an ash actually,” he said.

“Oh, really?”

I looked at it again, but it hadn’t changed shape, or gathered any greater significance. At the time this information meant nothing to me.

“There’s a lot of dieback round here already,” he said. “But this one looks good.”

I barely registered the dieback comment at the time.

I know a lot more about ash trees now. I know the Welsh word for ash is “onnen”. I know that ash seeds are called “keys” or, colloquially, “helicopters”. I know that ash leaves are small and compound, tending to come seven, nine, or eleven to the stem – with one at the end, and the rest growing opposite one another. I know that in springtime, as the greening gathers pace in the woodland, it feels like the ash leaves will never arrive, but that eventually they always do – that their leaves are the last to arrive, and first to leave. I know too that Yggsdrasill, the “world tree” in Norse mythology, is thought by some scholars to be an ash, and by others to be a yew. I know that I am liable to confuse rowan trees for ash, unless I see their leaves up close and note the comparatively serrated edges of the rowan’s leaves. I know that rowan is (presumably due to this similarity to ash) often referred to as “mountain ash”. I know that the hard, pale wood of the ash tree is, unlike most other trees, good for burning almost immediately after being felled, sawn, and split. I know, thanks to just this minute looking at Wikipedia, that Bruce Springsteen’s Telecaster guitar, pictured on the black-and-white album cover of Born to Run, was made (at least partly) of ash.

And I know that the first ash tree I felled here, to make room in the canopy for our solitary mature oak tree to thrive, had a thick seam of intensely musty-smelling mahogany up its middle. After some research online I decided this must be heart rot.

And I know that this spring, when I surveyed the trees in our garden, I found that 173 of them (including the surviving coppice stool of the one I felled) are European ash trees. Numerically, they make up the majority of trees in our little patch of woodland: over a quarter of our trees are ash trees.

And I know that a lot of our ash trees have ash dieback.

But that only tells part of the story. Of those 173, 62 are large or very large according to my classification system – meaning they measure at least one metre around, at about five feet from the ground. (Mixing my metric and imperial, as usual: the British Curse.) Our ash trees’ closest “competitor” in terms of sheer numbers is hazel (of which there are about 156): but hazel is an understory tree, with an average biomass vastly inferior to the average ash tree. Of the 17 other species here which have graduated beyond sapling size, only sycamore (at 96) comes close to comparing with ash in terms of its ecological significance and the visual impact on our local environment. Sycamores – like rosemary, chickens, and aqueducts – are believed to have arrived in Britain along with the Romans, about two thousand years ago. Ashes, by comparison, are believed to have been here at least ten thousand years: they colonized this land before the formation of the Channel, and thus before Britain can be said to have existed as a geographical entity distinct from Eurasia.

I tell my children this while I am measuring “Wishbone Ash”, a tree I suspect to be among the biggest, and oldest, in our garden. They’re not interested: at this time the information means nothing to them. (Wishbone Ash, incidentally, was named for its shape – not after the 1970s hard rock band.)

Measuring a large ash tree growing directly out of our rocky riverbank proves to be rather difficult; and for the second time in as many weeks, I fall into the river, Afon Wern, soaking my socks, shoes, shorts and underpants. The children enjoy this part of the afternoon lesson much more than any other.

Last time I fell off the trunk of a dead or dying willow, which serves as a bridge (albeit, it turns out, not a very good one) between our land and the marginal wilderness of a farmer’s field on the opposite bank in the neighbouring parish of Llangolman. My floating ribs to the right of my stomach would ache for a month after that. But this second fall, from Wishbone Ash, would bruise my coccyx – a niggling tail-bone pain which is likely to last much longer. I am too old to be falling in rivers, I tell myself: but the evidence says otherwise Wishbone Ash measures 226cm. This makes it about 129 years old. You might not think it was that old to look at it; but I’ve done my sums, made allowances for the local environment and (micro)climate, and even had the opportunity to compare my previous estimates for this species with a count of the rings inside a younger tree I felled last year, and thus to hone my formula. If my estimate is accurate, Wishbone Ash was probably an ash key in about 1891. By the time it was a foliate, sprightly sapling on the east bank of the rocky, rushy Afon Wern, the now-derelict power-loom factory that still stands on the lawn below our house had not yet been built. The older fulling (or “tucking”) mill that used to stand on the other side of the leat – and which we assume was powered by the same four-metre-diameter iron wheel – was then standing, but is now some fifty years gone.

The small dry stone walls I put up to demark the flowerbeds during the first month of lockdown are undoubtedly composed of the rubble left when the old mill was pulled down. From where the old mill used to be, I look up to the broken window of the “new” mill (which used to be called “the factory” by the locals): beneath it stands its rusted wheel, long lifted from its axis, which hasn’t turned since before my mother was born. The long-dead local blacksmith who made it put his name and address on it: D Davies, Penrallt. Another few decades of wear might render these letters unreadable, like much of the graffiti scrawled in the crumbling limewash on the ground floor of the building’s interior. Towering over the far gable end of the derelict mill is a centenarian ash tree whose bare branch tips are showing the telltale early signs of dieback.

Either everything here is a memento mori or I have reached the season of my life where my death seems nearer than my birth. Having kids will do that to you. Falling into rivers will do that to you. And studying history will do that to you. In the three years we’ve lived here – the three years before I decided to embark on my epic tree-survey – I have immersed myself in local history. Not just local history, in fact: domestic history. The history of this house, and this land.

I could tell you all sorts of things about this place and its past:

• That the previous owner but one was a retired Dutch naval captain who once escaped from Colditz; but, alas, not for sure whether the old foghorn I found in a thorn bush was reclaimed from his decommissioned frigate.

• That the mill-owner and farmer in 1839 when the Rebecca Riots were sweeping across Wales was called John John, and that I’ve seen a religiously themed embroidery that his daughter Hannah made here as a child, framed on the wall in the home of the retired headteacher of our daughters’ school; but not, alas, whether John John was present alongside Twm Carnabwth of this same parish when Twm donned women’s clothes and stormed the tollgate at Efailwen.

An embroidery by Hannah John, 1853.

• And, going futher back still, that in 1291AD Pope Nicholas IV wanted to raise money for the Fourth Crusade, so he ordered King Edward I to compile a forensic audit of church-owned land in England and Wales – and that for this reason we know that in 1291 there were four mills in the parish of Mynachlogddu: “three mills for grinding and one fulling mill.” But, alas, not for sure whether that fulling mill was the same fulling mill that was on this site centuries later; and whose successor, the power-loom factory, continued running until the 1950s, and whose long-rusted iron wheel is still visible from my shed window as I type these words.

There’s a lot we know, and much more that we don’t, about the human history of this place. But little of what I’ve read has given much – if any – indication of the non-human history. Unanswerable questions niggle like the pain in my coccyx. Never mind the mills: how many trees were here in 1291 when Pope Nicholas IV audited the parish? Were sycamores, having only had 1300 years to make inroads, less prevalent then? And were there more mature oak trees along Afon Wern in 1841 when John John donned his wife’s smock to go and burn down a tollgate in Efailwen (or not, as the case may have been)? Did the Dutch man who spent his retirement here in the ’70s and ’80s plant all those elms that are thriving up by the boundary with St Dogmael’s church, which he attended? (Maybe as some sort of perceived penance for the Dutch elm disease that was then decimating the British countryside?)

Perhaps I have created this great database of trees, and published the results in a blog-post on my rarely visited website, to simply say I was here, and so were these trees: we, however briefly and irrelevantly, existed. Maybe nobody cares now – and maybe that doesn’t matter – but maybe one day, a hundred years hence, somebody will wonder how many ash trees were here before dieback swept through. Maybe, hopefully, they’ll want to know approximately how old is that wishbone-shaped ash tree that miraculously survived the epidemic of the early 2000s. Maybe, hopefully not, they’ll want to know how the derelict woollen mill, or even the actual house we live in, was destroyed in the great storm of, e.g. 2021.

You see, there are rather a lot of iffy-looking ash trees around the back of our house; and one or two by the mill. And the pain in my backside caused by falling in the river while measuring trees would be nothing compared with that which could be brought about by a storm felling a dieback-weakened ash tree hanging over our spare room.

I am meant to be doing a tree-surgery course next week.

(In fact, I was meant to be doing it in April, but: Covid.)

The Dutch elm disease epidemic of the 1970s changed the landscape of Britain, especially southern England, beyond recognition – or so we are often told by those who are old enough to remember the grandeur of “English” Elms in the Sussex countryside. I don’t doubt it. And Elms had been around a long time: since the Romans, in fact.

Ash dieback could be much worse. Ash trees have been here longer than the Channel, and there are more of them than there were elms. Here in Wales, ashes are one of the most (if not the most) common woodland trees we have.

The Woodland Trust have the following to say on the subject:

“Ash dieback will kill up to 95% of ash trees across the UK. At a cost of billions, the effects will be staggering. It will change the landscape forever and threaten many species which rely on ash.”

Not to downplay the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused hardships and tragedies on an unprecedented scale for many of the people of Wales, the UK, and the rest of the world. But in fifty years time, ash dieback could conceivably have left a bigger impact on our world than Covid.

What can I do? I’m not sure. There are many things I’d like to do; some more likely than others, and some more relevant than others. I’d like to grow more of my own food. We’ve got a bit of fruit and some herbs, but I’d like to grow some vegetables next year. I’d like to have a bit more control over our bramble-maze of a garden – but without changing its character too much. I’d like some footpaths around the garden, and to make the small part of the garden which is designated access land, properly accessible – and worth accessing. I’d like to reinstate the public footpath which runs through our garden, but for which there is no signpost. (This place is beautiful and I’d like more people to be able to see it and enjoy it.) I’d like that footpath to go somewhere, like it did prior to the 1900s, when it met a footbridge over the Eastern Cleddau river, instead of a taut barbed-wire fence. I’d like to collaborate with landowners further down to extend the path into the neighbouring county, so I, and others, could feasibly walk from here to the nearest shop – even though it’s only a short drive. I’d like to convert some of our dilapidated outbuildings into holiday accommodation, to augment the income I get from writing. I’d like writing jobs that don’t require me to needlessly travel to faraway places like London for meetings which are not always kept by the people who arranged them. I’d like to get a government loan for a brand new water wheel that generates enough electricity for two homes, as I’m given to understand our site could support; to get the water that thunders down our leat from Foel Cwmcerwyn and Gors Fawr harnessed for human needs again, like it was for hundreds of years until the 1950s – probably since as long ago as 1291, and maybe even longer. I’d like to cut down all the diseased ash trees that have been allowed to grow up around the roof of the mill, and those looming threateningly behind our (only partially renovated) 18th-century farmhouse. I’d like to protect those ash trees that have a chance of surviving the onslaught of dieback – especially some of the older ones, who have been here much longer than I have, and could well be here long after I’m dead. And I’d like to plant trees to grow and fill the gaps which will be left in the canopy if 95% of our 173 ash trees succumb to dieback. And I’d plant ash, if possible. Maybe oak. Beech. Sweet chestnut. Birch. In fact, I’d like to know which trees to plant in order to help mitigate the ongoing environmental destruction our species is wreaking on the planet. (I mean, I know fiddling with 2.5 acres that’s already mostly woodland isn’t going to make much of a difference, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, right?) I’d like my daughters to feel like this place is their home, and to have the option, should they want to, to live and work here as adults. And I’d like them to love it as much as I do, even if they don’t feel the need to know the exact measurements of all of the trees.

For now though, I guess I’ll wear a mask when I go to the supermarket and wait for my “chainsaw maintenance and tree-felling” course to start. Keep reading the kids history books, even if they think they’re boring. Keep insisting to them that it’s very important to know which shaped leaf came from which tree – even though I didn’t know or care as recently as 3 years ago. Finish my shed so I’ve got somewhere to write. Get more writing jobs – ideally not ones that require me to go to London. Tread softly. Try not to leave smoking ruins in my wake. Live well, die happy. Here, hopefully.

I planted a yew tree outside my shed window last year. My wife bought it for me as a birthday present. I’ve named it Memento Mary. If it’s still there when I die, even if I live to a hundred, it’ll still be an infant.

A Velky, Cwmisaf, Mynachlogddu, 27/06/2020

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