I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.
The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.
But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.
The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.
While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.
Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.
So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.
The tree of life
But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.
According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).
In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”
In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.
Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.
But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.
So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.
Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.
But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.
But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.
Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.
The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.
The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.
If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.
But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.