Grey-barked, black-budded, hung with lockless keys
They stand in shaws, haunt hedgerows. In these parts
Men called them widow-makers; now the trees
Themselves are facing death. Suspicion starts
To gather: are those leaves just autumn-browned?
Is that a patch of lichen, nothing more –
Or have these woods become a battleground
Where every ash is readying for war?
For once again, the Norselands send their raiders
To pillage England: not with sword and axe
But microscopic spores; unseen invaders
With thirty million targets for attacks.
In dieback lies the ruin of us all:
For mighty Yggdrasil itself will fall.
Ash dieback has been confirmed in the neighbouring county of Kent, so we’re now just waiting to see whether our Sussex ashes succumb to Chalara fraxinea. Ash trees were known as ‘widow-makers’ hereabouts because of their unfortunate tendency to drop large branches without warning. Despite this ambivalent relationship with mankind, they’re very much a part of our local landscape. If dieback takes hold, we could be looking at destruction on a scale we haven’t seen since the Great Storm of 1987.
A thousand years ago, Sussex was ravaged by the Vikings: like them, ash dieback has arrived here from Scandinavia, which gave me the idea for this piece. That Yggdrasil, the great tree that holds up the world in Norse mythology, is an ash seemed the perfect crowning irony.