Last week, we travelled through England by train, London to Manchester, for a family gathering at my eldest son’s home in Sale. Of the sights I saw through the train windows, loveliest of all were the solitary trees in the pastures and wheat fields on the first half of our journey.
Magnificent oaks, mature and comely, were the most common:
Distance and the speed of the train made it hard to identify others. There were beeches, and sycamores and, once or twice, an ash tree, standing as tall as 60ft, dark green, the topmost branches hirsute in disarray, towering above the golden stubble.
Perhaps isolation had protected these individuals from ash dieback disease or the emerald borer beetle, potentially more serious than dieback according to experts on the fungus that has devastated ash plantations in Britain and Ireland.
There were no cattle under the trees: No Cuyps scenes of cows at rest, small groups contentedly chewing the cud, half in light, half in shadow, symbols of peace and timelessness. Even today such scenes, glimpsed as we hurry past, roll back the centuries. Trees, cattle, golden stubble, a reminder of a dimension beyond our frenetic world, a comforting sense of déjà vu.
‘Grey’s Elegy’ does in verse what cow painters do in oils. “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea [...] And leaves the world to darkness and to me” would almost send one to nod off to dreaming of dusk and bats and barn owls. It must be great to be a contented farmer driving his tractor home, the ploughing done, the herd milked and milk prices rising.
As the train carried us farther north, there were still no cattle but now, sometimes, black sheep, ink spots on dark green patches in a landscape becoming wilder, more like some parts of Ireland, bockety and unkempt, hedgerows growing higgledy-piggledy this way and that.
Earlier, as the wheat fields slid by, prone in the sun, fringed by low hedges with tonsured trees, neighboured by pastures flat and green as the nap on billiard tables, I couldn’t but reflect on the threat of the public disorder overhanging them.
In the now almost certain chaos of the UK’s EU withdrawal, the northern fields, with their robust diversity, might well survive this trimmed and tidy England. What a shock it is to see,
anywhere on earth, productive fields laid to waste by natural calamity, but how much more so here, where the arrogance of monomaniacs would be the sole author. Where could be found a hand to take the reins and draw the headless, heedless tragi-comedy called Brexit to a halt before it heralds the ruin of England?
We saw burnt stubble in English fields, a contained burning, but the chaos theory, the ‘crashing out’ promulgated by the leading actors is uncontainable, a bonfire of the vanities, Nero fiddling while Rome burns, the dismantling of a nation while its vainglorious leader spouts unreality and hot air.
England was a country I loved: I lived there, on and off, for decades. I have children, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild there; I wish to see it thrive but my heart quakes when I hear the inanities of the clowns that run the circus.
What do I know? Let me return to familiar territory, to nature as unassuming as the cows of Cuyps. The natural cycle of trees, ash to ashes, one might say. And what’s the harm if one burned the dead ash orchards, the dieback fungus and the beetles? Effective, perhaps, but primitive. Better let dead trees stand; some 2,000 species of wildlife depend on dead wood for survival.
Immune trees have been found; 3% may be resistant. An incentive called AshTag initiated by the Irish Tree Council asks us to use ‘citizen science’ to pinpoint resistant trees.
The most celebrated is a 200-year-old specimen in Norfolk affectionally called Betty. She was identified in 2012, when other mature trees and saplings died all around her. The gathering and planting of seeds and cutting from tolerant individuals may evolve a new, healthy generation that could replace those ravaged by the fungal pathogen.
Chalara fraxinea, as it is called, reached Ireland via live trees shipped from Poland. Many other destructive pathogens, yet to show themselves, have already been imported here. Forty seven tree pathogens now threaten Britain. Like Britain, we are surrounded by water: Pathogens and insects cannot move across land as in continental Europe.
A total ban on the import of all live plants except those grown from cells or tissues under sterile conditions is the only answer. The live plant trade reaches every corner of our planet;
international free movement of goods is valued more than any other consideration. This must be changed.