If the Ash Trees Die so Will Part of Us

I love the English landscape.  In particular I love the landscape of the Weald.  It’s sinuous and sweeping yet still intimate.  It’s strong without being rugged.  It’s ancient without being primal or unshaped.  It bears the mark of human hands, centuries of husbandry, yet it hasn’t been wholly tamed.

The picture I had on my computer screen during five or more years reporting from Malaysia was the view out of my bedroom window looking out past the barn over the Sussex countryside.  Just looking at it I could feel the tension seep out of my shoulders.  I could fool myself that home was nearer than the 8000 miles that separated us.

Many people have their favourite landscapes and I won’t apologise for mine.  It’s about familiarity and a sense of home.  Others will feel at home elsewhere.  It’s not ‘mine is better than yours’ just ‘mine is a part of me.’

Lately I’ve come to know another part of the Weald better, around Leigh.  One of my favourite views is as you turn off Hayesden Lane onto Ensfield Road and reach the brow of the first rise.  There you get the most wonderful panorama of the Medway valley, west of Tonbridge, as it flows gently through the Low Weald.

I suspect many of us who live in the wooded parts of England will have absorbed the news about Chalara fraxinea, or ‘ash dieback’ with a profound degree of foreboding.  I faintly remember the landscape littered with the skeletal shapes of dead elms in the 70s.  Estimates of the number of ash trees in England seem to shift but the number 80 million is being bandied about.  If we lose 80 million trees or even a significant proportion of them it will transform the countryside.  It will devastate species that live on ash.  But, above all, the way most of us will experience it is through change in the views that we care about.

But what we shouldn’t lose sight of is the fact that it highlights the way we undervalue our environment.  Though the fungus has been spreading westwards from Poland since the early 1990s nothing has been done.

International trade rules, both those of the WTO and the EU, are focused on removing barriers to trade.  Both make it very difficult to block imports on environmental grounds.  Of course some governments are not above using environmental protection as an excuse for economic protectionism.  However the presumption is that the needs of business trump those of the environment.

When companies pollute they degrade our common heritage.  When trees die because the right of people to import native tree saplings from abroad is more important than managing the risks involved they take from the bank of Planet Earth.  They take but they don’t pay back.

Many cultures have a strong sense that the environment is their common heritage and common wealth.  To steal from it is tantamount to steal from the community.  We have lost much of that – blame the Norman Conquest or feudalism or the enclosures, we seem to be one of the cultures most divorced from the notion that the woods and hills, the air and the streams, the valleys and the hidden places belong to all of us and to none, to past generations and future generations as well as ours.

I suspect that nothing will prompt us to rethink our detachment as much as will ash dieback.  Perhaps it’s the reason that the government has convened its COBRA emergency committee.  They’re seeing how the story is playing in the papers, not The Guardian, but in the Mail and the Telegraph.

For too long we’ve allowed a culture that sees the price tag but doesn’t understand the value.  Perhaps the fate of our ash trees will go some way towards changing that.  But if it does the cost of that change will be almost unbearable.

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