Kevin Myers: It's time we saw the wood for the trees
Published 02/11/2012 | 17:00
PLAGUES spread. That's why they're plagues, and not "outbreaks". The British Ministry of Agriculture did not act on the first warning about the calamitous disease afflicting Danish ash trees, and now it is too late. The fatal fungus that causes "ash dieback" has been found in several sites in the east of England: the toll knells across the English countryside, just as it did 40 years ago with the arrival of Dutch elm disease. Back then, it was assumed -- or at least hoped -- that Dutch elm disease would not cross the Irish Sea. We know the bitter truth today in this now elmless isle.
The chances are, the same calamitous process will destroy our ash population. The lethal fungus has already been reported in Wicklow. If ash dieback repeats the horrors of Dutch elm disease, nature will merely be repeating the sorry practices of mankind in Ireland, which turned a largely afforested island into the least arboreal country in Europe. Yet the first settlers here after the Ice Age had to have arrived with the necessary seeds, for the trees of mainland Europe could not possibly have spread here without direct and intended assistance. Acorns and beechmast could never have got here without help, and though ash seeds are wind-borne, the prevailing winds are in the wrong direction; and anyway, the modest wing on the seed would make a long journey practically impossible.
Certainly, the ancient Gaels revered trees, and ash especially. Iubhdan, King of the Lepra, sang its praises: "Dark is the colour of the ash; timber that makes the wheels to go; rods he furnishes for horsemen's hands, and his form turns battle into flight."