I first noticed the signs of Ash Dieback Disease this summer in a young ash sapling at the back of the house. The twiggy ends of branches were losing leaves in the middle of summer; an unusual occurrence unless a tree is diseased or otherwise stressed - by drought for example. Soon, I noticed the same thing happening in other ash trees in the locality, large and small. Strangely although some seem very badly affected and have already lost all their leaves, others - for now - show only minimal damage and others seem completely untouched. I hope this means there is some degree of resistance to the fungus in the trees. Time will tell. It tears at my heart to think of all the ash trees in the landscape dying. I remember my parents and grandparents lamenting the tragedy of Dutch Elm Disease and the changes it had wrought in the landscape. It seems we have not learnt the lessons we should have from that disaster.
I love trees. A wooded landscape is my favourite place to be. I spent my childhood in a small Essex village with large gardens and an orchard of apple trees to roam in. The orchard was a magical place to me. I wandered under the twisty old trees looking for fairies and teaching myself the names of wildflowers, snacking on windfalls and blackberries. I climbed into the friendly, spreading branches of the apple trees which held me kindly, giving me a sense of daring and security at the same time. The apple trees seemed like a group of benevolent, grandmotherly beings who fed me with their fruit and soothed me with their tranquil presence.
All trees in fact seemed to me to have their own personalities. The big oaks at the edge of the orchard were aloof, yet protective in their own way. The rowan tree outside my grandmother's kitchen was a quixotic, magical being akin to a good fairy. The twin hawthorns at the front of Nanna and Granddad's house a pair of gruffly good-natured gnomic characters. The tall, graceful ash tree in our front garden was a totemic family guardian. Later, as a teenager, a particular beech tree - serene and non judgemental - became my confidante, as I sat with my back against its smooth bark pouring out my adolescent woes.
The trees that surrounded me as a child were my friends, and when Dad and Granddad decided to cut some down I begged them not to and cried so hard that they relented and the trees were saved.
One evening, years later I was over at my parent's house - the house I had grown up in, next to my grandparent's house and the orchard. The family - my Mum and Dad, Granddad, brother and sister and assorted partners were gathered in the lounge chatting cosily. I went out to the kitchen to get a glass of water when I suddenly felt a strange urge to go out into the garden. It was winter, it was dark and cold, and yet I felt a strong pull to go outside into the night air. Shrugging on my coat, I unlocked the back door and stepped quietly out into the chilly air. It was a clear night with enough of a moon for me to see my way without a torch. Following the little voice inside I crossed into my Grandparents' garden. The night was still and silent, not a breath of wind. And yet laid before me like a slain warrior was the fallen body of one of the apple trees, its trunk and branches silvered by moonlight. This was the apple tree in whose branches Granddad had built a treehouse for us. I remembered climbing up there on the day I left primary school and whispering the news of this rite of passage to the tree, trying to make sense of how I felt about this momentous occasion. I remembered playing up there with my sister and brother. I remembered sitting up there in the shade on a hot summer's day reading a book.
I brushed the branches with my hand, felt a tear slide down my face. The tree was old but had shown no sign of dying. Yet something - honey fungus? - had been eating away at its roots and tonight, quietly, finally, in the still night air it had fallen, giving up its hold on life. I blessed the tree, thanked it for it's friendship and fruit. I bade it farewell and returned to the company of my family feeling sad, yet somehow peaceful. How had I known? There had been no sign, no sound, no reason for me to go out into the garden at night. And yet somehow the tree had called to me, had wanted to say goodbye. I was glad I was there at the right time and place.
Other trees have called to me, offered friendship to me over the years. The cathedral-like grove of cedars planted at the windward side of Halfway Up A Hill as a windbreak. The silver birch T and I planted on our son Peter's ashes as a memorial. The great beech trees at the top of the hill, which sang to me on the day of my initiation. The weeping silver birch under which my Welsh grandmother used to hide gifts for us when we were children. The rowan tree I am nurturing in a pot to be a friendly fairy outside my kitchen, just like the one my Nanna had.
I love the trees surrounding my home. I pray for the health of the ash trees, hope they will weather the coming storms. I breathe in the oxygen gifted me by the trees, and gift them with the carbon dioxide of my exhaled breath. May we live together in symbiosis and friendship. Bless the trees.