Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks | 5th January 2018

As we enter a new year, we ask our friends and collaborators to look back on the past twelve months and share their significant moments. From Sue Brooks:

This is my favourite story from 2017, about the unforeseen gifts of getting things wrong. I’m calling it Fraxinus in Excelsior.

I walk in the woods near my home every day, usually one of three tracks which aren’t popular with cyclists. Primroses and celandines were opening overnight in the exceptionally warm first weeks of March, and then the dry, cold winds from the North and a long viral infection kept me indoors until early May. I saw the first swallow on May 7th and transformation in the woods. An orange tip butterfly laying eggs on the only garlic mustard in sight; hazel, birch, beech, oak, hornbeam, elder all in fresh green leaf, but not a single ash. The conviction grew rapidly, as I looked for ash trees and found them in more places than I had ever seen before, that Chalara fraxinea was rife in the Forest of Dean, spread by cheap imported stock carrying the disease. Those days of detective work, hot on a non-existent scent, misreading all the clues, were eye-opening. Ash is a master of disguise and a supreme opportunist. The bark can be baby smooth, pale grey or yellow. It can rise twenty feet on a trunk I can circle with my hands before branching, or fill a small space with bonsai elegence. There are two in the butchered roadside hedges I pass every day which take my breath away with their loveliness. Mature ash trees are in another league. In my obsessive state of mind, none of them looked healthy.

I phoned the Forestry Commission, but all the rangers were out. I left an emotional message with the receptionist. I could imagine it being passed on — another tree-hugger bothered about Dieback — and bought the only book in existence devoted to the subject. The Ash Tree by the Honorary Professor of Historical Ecology, Oliver Rackham. I was deep into it when one of the rangers left a message — Yes, the ash is very late coming into leaf this year. Ash Dieback — nothing to worry about but we’re keeping on eye on it. Hmmmmm. Oliver Rackham is wonderfully forthright in his opinions, and he doesn’t think much of the Forestry Commission, nor of planting trees in vast numbers. Much better to leave woodlands to regenerate. The Great Storm of 1987 wasn’t a tragedy but a rare and wonderful event that we have been privileged to witness. Trees do not die: new shoots grow if grazing animals are kept out, in a process he calls “the constant spring”. This was triumphant music in my ears. The book was written in two weeks from a hospital bed in Texas the year before he died in 2015. It is the expression of a lifetime’s study of the ash and other trees worldwide and the understanding that the business of planting trees should carry a health warning for existing trees.

My daily walks took on a new perspective. In the large deer-fenced area, one of the few which has been left to regenerate, I took photos of small thickets of self-sown ash saplings, graceful as young girls with upraised arms, skin smooth and totally unblemished. By the beginning of June, ash had exploded into leaf. All the trees I had previously seen as diseased (apart from the few dozen with blotched and blackened bark still standing in their tree guards) seemed to be doing well. I noticed the damage limitation mechanism described in the book. Several trees had sprouted new shoots from an infected trunk, but the foliage was bunched at the ends. Even mature trees seemed to have this tendency. Perhaps it is a way of maintaining strength and vigour in a world of constant change.

One tree was drawing my attention. It had many of the qualities I had begun to recognise and admire. It stood to one side of the track, set back a few yards among larches and oaks. I must have walked past hundreds of times in oblivion. After one of the storms in early autumn, the ground was thick with leaves torn from the upper branches, reawakening my anxieties about disease. I measured it with my eyes — perhaps 30 feet before the first branch — and the girth with my arms — roughly 10 feet — and marvelled at the immaculate beauty of the bark, patterned like the little rivulets in wet sand when the tide has receded. For the next four months, it became the barometer of my mood. For several days in a row I would pass by too preoccupied to notice, blind to the natural world. Sometimes I would be almost out of sight and the tree would call to me; I retraced my steps with an apology. There were more storms and I feared for it; in the snows I feared more.

October 19th was the most memorable day of all. I had been distracted for a while but there came a turning point when my heart was at ease, and I set off in the late afternoon in fading light. I wasn’t thinking about the ash tree; I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular; I was looking and listening and smelling, all senses alert and it was just glorious. My feet took the usual track into the wood, and there was the tree shining in front of me. It was as if the other trees had drawn back shrouded in ivy, and I saw that the ash had no ivy whatsoever. Naked from the moment of breaking out from the seed, it spired to the heavens. “Spired” is a word Thoreau uses about the pines he loved in Massachusetts, an echo of my own thoughts about the ash. All the light in that dark place in an autumn dusk was gathered around this singularly beautiful tree, and for a moment I could feel that I had seen what is really there: Fraxinus in Excelsior.

On a different note, it has been a continuing delight to write for and be a part of Caught by the River. I am now a Life Member of the Jeb Loy Nichols Fan Club. If I had to save one of his 2017 discs from the waves for the desert island, it would be Al Greene’s ‘Back up Train’. He’s a legend here in the Forest of Dean (together with Cesspool Baker) and so is the mantra YOU JUST NEVER KNOW. It’s so true. Thank You Jeb.

The joys of getting things wrong, and the optimism of You Just Never Know. I can’t think of a better way to step into 2018.


Sue Brooks on Caught by the River