Heart Rot

If we lose the ash tree, we’ll lose culture as well as nature.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom.

Reading the shocking news about ash die-back, the disease that has now killed most of Denmark’s ash trees and many of those across the rest of northern Europe, I was reminded that when we lose our wildlife we lose some of our stories.

The death of a species, especially a species as significant as the ash, punches a hole not only in nature, but also in our culture.

Throughout northern Europe, the ash tree was associated in pagan thought with the guardianship of life. As Paul Kendall explains on the Trees for Life site, in the mythology of the Vikings (and several other northern peoples), an ash known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree was the scaffolding on which the universe was built. It

“grew on an island surrounded by the ocean, in the depths of which the World Serpent lay. This ash tree’s trunk reached up to the heavens, and its boughs spread out over all the countries of the Earth. Its roots reached down into the Underworld. A squirrel ran up and down the tree carrying messages from the serpent gnawing at the roots to the eagle in the canopy, and back. A deer fed on the ash leaves and from its antlers flowed the great rivers of the world. A magical goat grazed by the tree, and its udders dispensed not milk but mead for the warriors in Odin’s Great Hall. The gods held their councils under the canopy of their guardian tree.”

Odin, the king of the gods, hung himself from the tree to obtain cosmic wisdom. During his vigil, one of his eyes was pecked out by ravens. You can see in this myth, as JG Frazer pointed out in the Golden Bough, an obvious correlate of the crucifixion story.

Wagner developed the saga in The Ring of the Nibelung. Wotan (Odin), the one-eyed king of the gods, tore the shaft of his spear from the World Ash Tree (spear shafts were typically made from ash poles). On the shaft were inscribed the holy laws and treaties by which the world and the heavens were governed.

The mortal hero Siegfried fights Wotan (his grandfather) and hews the shaft of the sacred spear in two, literally breaking the law of the gods. Wotan then suicidally instructs his warriors to hack down the World Ash Tree and pile its branches around Walhall (Valhalla). At the end of the last opera, Wotan’s valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde casts a brand onto this pyre, and Valhalla is consumed by flame. The source of life becomes the means of destruction.

Children love this story (I find it helps if you skim over the incest and the suttee). But if ash die-back follows the same course as Dutch elm disease, I can imagine telling it one day and being asked what an ash tree is. I see this is as a loss that goes beyond the great sadness of picturing the end of the magnificent, well-used trees I know (some of which have been pollarded or coppiced for hundreds of years), which are laden with both wildlife and human history.

If the fungus reaches them, they will, as if on Wotan’s instructions, be brought down and hacked to pieces. It feels like a kind of Götterdämmerung, a twilight of the gods. There is something of the norse deity about an ancient ash tree, grey and clawing and bearded with lichen.

Already, though not as a result of the disease, the cultural significance of the tree has begun to slip from our minds. For example, anyone who has split an ash trunk cannot help but be aware of what ash blonde means. The fresh wood is almost white (it darkens, when it had been seasoned and polished, to a beautiful bright gold). Walking through a chemist’s shop a few months ago, my eye was caught by a packet of hair dye labelled “ash blonde”. The model’s hair was a charcoal-grey colour. Ash, it seemed, had been interpreted as fire-ash. It felt like a small but sad impoverishment of the language.

Other European nations are now begging Britain to ban imports of ash asplings, so that the tree retains an uninfected stronghold. As ever, when faced with a call to impose even the slightest restrictions on business (think of its failure to ban the class of pesticides that are killing the bees), the government has dithered and made excuses, and the fungus is now spreading across the country.

One of the effects of ash die-back is what foresters call heart rot: the fungus penetrates into the core of the wood. To me this term is freighted with another meaning.



8 thoughts on “Heart Rot

  1. The production and consumption economy depletes our world of major tree species through stress, creating greatly diminished immunity and inevitably checks and balancing elements that are insignificant in healthy ecosystems have devastating effects. The symptom is the tree species’ death through fungus attack. The reality is that the fungus is an innocent element. The cause is the extractive and destructive production and consumption economy system which is guilty and flawed at its very own heart and the heart rot is very nicely symbolized by the ash tree’s death. We need to wake up and pay attention because major tree species death are classic and very obvious indicators of total environmental collapse. Eco-systems major in trees as the main frame — the largest living elements that hold up the integrity of systems.
    The ecological economy is a system that is much larger in potential than the production and consumption economy and by default regenerates our world into abundance beyond our present imaginations. This is quite an easy, simple and cheap solution to achieve that has been proven many times by permaculture design system even over vast areas of broad and degraded environments like the Loess Plateau in China.

    We need to make the commitment to educate as many people everywhere — every segment of humanity that this is possible — about the only civilized and moral way forward for all of mankind and together we can evolve and develop as a positive life enhancing species.

    We need to be courageous, dedicated, dogged and carry this responsibility with total pride and honor. There is only one real game in town, one last war to win and we have to win this one or the lights go out, forever.

    Heart Rot is a symbol of our times. We are the warriors in a growing peace army that can turn this enemy around and banish this evil forever.

  2. Rapid oak decline, dutch elm disease, ash die-back… Are these symptoms of a pattern we should be worried about? Is it natural or are we systematically undermining trees somehow, as Geoff suggests?

  3. Tom. Yeah, it is a symptom of a pattern that we should be worried about.

    When a single tree dies off from disease it is just part of a functioning ecosystem. The resources in that tree get recycled back into that ecosystem.

    When an entire species of trees dies off from disease and they form part of the canopy, then that is much more of a problem. Other tree species move in to replace that tree, but this reduces overall diversity and resilience in that ecosystem.

    Also, the tree that died off may also provide many unknown services such as:

    – support to the understorey trees which may also die off in its absence;

    – it may provide shelter to specific animals/insects which can no longer survive without that tree; and

    – it may also be mining nutrients from deep below the surface and depositing them back onto the surface as leaf fall.

    There are probably other services too which the tree provides.

    I’m not suggesting that ecosystems are fixed and unchangeable, because clearly they aren’t, but an ecosystem with lower diversity is a less resilient system and far more easily damaged by shocks. What this article is actually writing about in between all the fluff, is a shock to that ecosystem.


  4. Yes, woods local to me have a lot of ash in the canopy, dominant along with sycamore (some consider a troublesome exotic). These woods could end up with even greater sycamore dominance (…until a sycamore disease comes along?!…)

    But if it’s a pattern, what are we doing that spawns this range of tree epidemics?

    Is it a cocktail of impacts, from reduced species diversity to increased trade (this fungi is presumably an invasive species – just to get the invasion debate going!)? Will biodiverse sites get hit as hard as the stressed locations Geoff refers to? Is everywhere stressed?

    Besides banning imports of ash saplings (which our government is unlikely to do), can we do anything to protect specific sites? And if it’s ‘natural’, should we?!

  5. Hi Tom. Yeah, sycamore trees grow here too, but they are an understorey tree and tend to build top soil through leaf fall in autumn. They also provide shade to the soil which the eucalyptus canopy doesn’t. Only time will tell how it all plays out.

    The tree epidemics originate in areas that have a high number of species and high competition for scarce resources. Their impact is often seen in areas of low species diversity. What you can take out of that is that bio-diverse areas are better able to deal with shocks than areas of low diversity.

    The fungi – like other invasive species – travels as an opportunist. There is a lot of travel going on so species hitchhike.

    You should define what you mean by the word “natural”. It may be harder than you think!

  6. If these tree diseases are aided by us, besides transportation, what other theories for our contribution to them?

    How about – knocking out tree immune systems with pesticides (actual pesticides or dissolved carbonic acid, nitric acid, sulphuric acid etc in rain?) – could that weaken the symbiotic microbiology of the leaves (if that’s where pathogenic fungi invade)?

    But each disease is different. Answers on a postcard please.

    1. Condy’s Crystals or Potassium per Manganate is an old fashioned antiseptic, we used to put these crystals into cold water to purify it for use to clean wounds. It turns out to
      be a way of combatting fungus. Also Neem extracts are useful. If all else fails I try the ‘cure’ my dad once used. He bored a hole in the trunk of a very sick Mango Tree
      and poured in Hydrochloric Acid(which he used as a soldering flux) in an effort to kill it and it magically revived, produced an excellent crop and lived for many more years!

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