At a time when most people in Britain couldn’t even identify the ash tree, the grim sick blight of ash dieback has seized the public consciousness to a surprisingly powerful extent. The reason is clear to anyone familiar with woodland: our connection to trees is innate and profound; they are more than mere decoration fringing our lives, our woodlands are repositories of our imaginations and histories.
Researching and writing Skimming Stones required Leo and I to spend inordinate amounts of time in trees. I say required; I’m not even sure if we conceived the book as a permission, an excuse to be allowed to spend longer in our forests. Sleeping under a soft canopy in April cutting green bark back, slicing and sculpting in summer, burning back dead fall in winter, our closeness to the trees became something greater than mastery of practical skills; we became aware of the layers of memory we were tapping into. Once days have passed in the silent company of these vast entities a change occurs in the human animal; time becomes irrelevant and a perspective is imparted as powerfully transformative as walking on the moon. We return as strangers to the towns and cities, bodies reset to a greater rhythm.
Much has been written on ash dieback and we will have to wait to see the full extent of devastation rendered on our tender landscape and wildlife. One thing is sure: along with the scientific assessments of areas to be affected, we need great dedications to, and appreciation of, the wider impact our woods have on us, on our minds. Only then might we start to value woodland as powerfully as our ancestors did, not merely for what they give us in a physical material sense but psychologically too.
Check out the brilliant ‘Woods’ series on BBC Radio 4 that started last Saturday.