Celebrating the ash at Springhead

THE ash tree – fraxinus excelsior – is the World Tree of Norse legend, important medicinally and ecologically. It is the third most common tree in England and is under serious threat from a fungal infection – yet most of us could probably not identify it with confidence.

A conference and exhibition at Springhead, Fontmell Magna, from 10th to 15th October, will explore the mythology, history and importance of the ash in culture and the environment, and the threats that this ancient and widespread tree now faces.

Various versions of an older weatherlore rhyme say: “If the oak before the ash, we shall only have a splash; if the ash before the oak, we shall surely have a soak.” And that may be all that many of us know of this shy, graceful tree.

Ash does not historically have a high profile like oak or beech, and it does not have the vivid colours of holly with its red berries or horse chestnut with its shiny conkers. You can’t identify an ancient ash tree as easily as you can a yew or oak, but we need to understand the significance of these trees and the threats they face, before we lose them.

This conference, created by photographer and environmentalist Edward Parker, who is the director of the Springhead Trust, is the first major celebration of the ash. Its aims are to celebrate the tree, to recognise its importance and the threats faced by the surviving population across Britain and to explore what we can do to protect and preserve it.

Edward says: “In many ways ash trees are physiologically quite unremarkable, many being so quintessentially tree-like in appearance with a tall, slender, straight trunk supporting a graceful dome of feathery leaves we just don’t pay attention to them.”

Ash is an essential element of native British woodland, with more than 1,000 different species depending on it either wholly or in part for their survival. The impact and spread of ash dieback is threatening this extensive and important ecosystem, with the fungal disease recorded across two thirds of the country.

The talks cover various aspects of the botany, biodiversity, cultural history, mythology and utility of the ash tree as well as the effects of ash dieback. Other themes include a Scandinavian perspective on ash tree loss, the Kent AONB ash art and public awareness project, and the collection of genetic material in the search for dieback-resistant strains of European ash.

AshScape ends with the Springhead Open Garden & Grand Musical Finale on Sunday 15th October from 11am to 5pm. Visitors can explore the gardens and attend Heartwood, an outdoor choral processional work, composed by Karen Wimhurst, based on the Norse Tree of Life Yggdrasil. There will be three performances between 11am and 3pm. The café will serve refreshments and light lunches.

In addition, Professor Adrian Newton, Bournemouth University, will offer visitors the chance to don headphones and listen to the internal workings (the heartbeat) of a living veteran ash tree that will be ‘wired for sound’.

The exhibition, AshScapes, art and photography inspired by the ash tree, will be on show on Tuesday 10th October from 10am to 5pm and Sunday 15th October 11am to 5pm. The artists and photographers are Nick Barberton, David Blake, Emma Buckmaster and Janet French, Gary Cook, Julian Hight, Archie Miles, Edward Parker, Howard Phipps, Marion Sidebottom, Liz Somerville and Darren Wheeler.

Edward Parker has written some 30 books on trees in including writing about rainforests and indigenous peoples around the world. AshScape is being staged in collaboration with the Ancient Tree Forum and the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

In Norse legend, the world tree, Yggdrasil, is an ash and according to Danish folklore, it is said that if ash should ever disappear then the world would end. Ecologists fear that the combined impact of ash dieback and the destructive emerald green beetle called the ash borer (which hasn’t yet arrived in Britain)  has the potential to wipe out all Europe’s ash trees if it cannot be controlled.

The situation is not totally bleak, as visitors to the conference will hear. There is some hope both with resistant strains of ash and developing techniques to prevent the infection of vulnerable ash seedlings in the first place.

Booking is essential for all talks, visit www.springheadtrust.org.uk or call 01747 811853.

Photographs by Edward Parker.