An extract from The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford
As a small child, my mother was taken to the Lake District, in the hope that she would have a better chance of survival under the shelter of the north-western hills than at home on the flat, over-exposed coast of Lincolnshire. It was June 1940. It would all have been a great adventure, were it not for the constant reminders that things were not as they should be. It was not just the absence of fathers, uncles, brothers, but the presence in the hotel grounds of oddly damaged things: a blind cat, a broken wheelbarrow, a man who had been at Dunkirk and did not seem quite like other grown ups. What my mother remembers most vividly is a young woman, pale in face and dress, who spent her days sitting outside, staring up into the branches of the tall ash tree and drawing what she saw. When the sun came out, her pencil lines darkened, turning the tracery of tiny branches into black lace veils. She never spoke, but day after day she looked up and recreated the impossible patterns on her large, flat sheets of paper. What did the ash tree mean to that unknown woman? Or to my mother, in whose agitated, impressionable mind it took root and has remained ever since?
The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down towards the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree – everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrows with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained-glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendour of more eye-catching trees.
The grace of the ash tree has always appealed to artists. John Constable immortalised the trees around his home at Dedham in Essex. In paintings such as The Cornfield and Flatford Mill, ashes are predominant in the foreground, their feathery leaves highlighted by tiny brushstrokes. According to his close friend and biographer C. R. Leslie, Constable would gaze on almost any tree ‘with an ecstacy of delight’, but his real favourite was the ash. Leslie recalls Constable’s profound distress over the felling of an ash tree in Hampstead. The ash had inspired one of his most beautiful drawings, but Constable announced in a public lecture that ‘she died of a broken heart’. He pointed accusingly to a parish notice forbidding vagrancy that had been nailed unceremoniously to the trunk as the cause of his beloved ash’s death. ‘The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace,’ he told his audience, for almost as soon as the notice went up, some of the top branches withered. Within a year or so, the entire tree had become paralysed, and so this ‘beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board’. Constable’s indignation over the fate of ‘this young lady’ shows that his delicate drawing was not a mere nature study: it was an expression of love.
Those looking for love have traditionally found hope in the leaves of the ash, heartened perhaps by the perfectly matched pairs of slim green leaflets unfurling from each stalk. Young women would carry a sprig of these pretty, pinnate leaves in the belief that the very next man they met would turn out to be their future spouse: a rather risky approach to speed-dating, but indicative of the ash’s romantic aura. Sometimes an ash leaf or two would be tucked into the cleavage, which may have helped attract the attention of the unsuspecting swain. If the leaves were not having quite the desired effect, there was always the fruit of the ash tree, hanging down in tempting clusters and easily reached from the ground. These bunches of ash-keys were boiled to create an aphrodisiac.
Unlike some old, deciduous forest trees, such as the oak, ashes are not renowned for their longevity, most surviving no longer than a couple of hundred years. When regularly sliced in a coppice wood- land, however, an ash tree will continue to send up tall, straight poles of living green, even when its heartwood has completely rotted away: at the Bradfield woods in Suffolk, the stools of coppiced ash, spreading from the ground like a great broom head, are thought to be a thousand years old. The ash’s abundant keys lead to such rapid propagation that there hardly seems a need to preserve the older trees, because there is always an abundance of ashlings. Since the ash is tolerant of almost any kind of soil, it springs up all over as one of the most familiar trees in Britain.
Fiona joins Emma Warren and Zaffar Kunial to talk woodland on the Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot Festival, Sunday 30 July.