Ash has featured in and inspired both of our early art practices. Dan made arrows and pitched fork sculptures whilst studying at the Royal College of Art, and the ash tree was a formative influence on Heather’s emerging practice, inspiring her to work with plant material following a student workshop in the north Welsh countryside with artist David Nash just after he had planted the Ash Dome.
In December 2016, we visited Nash at his Blaenau Ffestiniog studio chapel and extensive work yard. The location of the Ash Dome is kept under wraps, yet nearly forty years later from when Heather first visited the artist in 1978 not even this most iconic of artworks is spared. Ash Dome is now afflicted with ash dieback disease. Nash expresses his acceptance of the hand of nature in the demise of his artwork, though reflective that he had always thought it would outlive him.
Moving to the south of the Welsh countryside, the author Rob Penn opens up his home and studio to us near the town of Abergavenny, and describes his journey with the ash tree. His book, The Man Who Made Things From Trees details the fabrication and history of a myriad of objects made from the ash tree. He takes the narrative of searching for and finding a veteran ash tree growing in a forest near to his hillside home, that he had felled and made into over forty objects. From hurley sticks to sledges, he captures the essence of the tree and its remarkable history through the art of craftsmanship.
Our luck was having this trove of a book, and Rob’s generous support to shape our understanding of how the ash tree in its myriad of wooden forms has manifested itself in so many objects and weaved itself through so many place names that its presence, and now inevitable absence in our landscape is something we can never take for granted. Rob Penn writes, “It is the largest contributor to natural regeneration in British broad-leaved woodlands, accounting for more than 40 per cent of all observed seedlings and saplings in some surveys”, it grows fast in the right circumstances; on moist, lime-rich soil in woodlands ash is one of the most productive hardwoods, highly productive when coppiced – and when pollarded – yet its vigor and opportunism is being laid to waste by the fungal infection.
The list of objects made from ash is long. It is the tree of the common man, and from early Neolithic times it has been part of humans industry and evolution. The V&A Museum holds many objects in collection either made of ash wood or depicting ash trees in drawings, paintings or prints.
In modern times ash has been used in the structural construction of the iconic Routemaster bus, the classic British Morgan racing car and integrated into the making of de Havilland’s Mosquito aeroplane in 1941, where the ash’s quality of resilience, toughness and flexibility made it the machine capable of performing the huge variety of missions devised by air tacticians.
In February 2017, we spent a day at the de Havilland museum in Hatfield where the full abilities of the “Wooden Wonder” were shown to us. It was described as almost ‘vegetable’ given the use of Alaskan spruce, English ash, Canadian birch, fir, and Ecuadorian balsa. The wooden structure was covered with Irish flax, glued into place with layers of cellulose extract. It’s acknowledged there has never been a more successful, combat-proven warplane made of wood. Yet, we felt that the relatively small amount of ash used in the construction didn’t encourage a more developed idea.
A conversation with Rob Penn though threw that into relief – we were in the wrong war! He directed us back to WW1 and the Sopwith Camel. A quick online search and we found how these early planes were reliant on ash timber for the framework and the propeller. Such an object of wonder is the propeller the artist Duchamp on visiting the Paris Aviation Show of 1919 remarked to Brancusi, “Painting is over and done with. Who could do anything better than this propeller? Look, could you do that?” *
Two ideas were taking form in our studio at this time. One inspired by the structural form of the propeller and the other taking arrow staves and repeatedly piercing the trunk to create an intensity of lines emanating from the tree – producing an aura around the form.
The arrow shaft is cleaved from ash. Straight-grained and clean, with an aerodynamic design it lent itself to one of the deadliest weapons in medieval European warfare, the longbow. History recounts the huge industry in arrow production between 1300-1500 and relays the unprecedented defeat of medieval armies by arrow-storms where English archers could unleash twelve arrows a minute. The arrow is light enough to shoot a good distance, yet heavy enough to maintain its high, initial velocity and cause damage when striking the target. Another key property ‘stiffness’ is, in material sciences the property of a structure, sometimes referred to as ‘dynamic spine’ by archers; if the arrow is ‘correct’ it can withstand the initial impulse of release from the bow.
This line of enquiry began to take precedence. In our artwork, stripped of feather flight and steel head it is impaled in its thousands into the monolith form of two ash trees. A monolith describes a pollarded tree, where major branches are truncated. One tree is stripped of bark, pale and smooth. The other tree is burnt dark ash. Both trees standing vertically, up to 10m high have their natural forms extended by the extruding mass of arrow shafts. The arrow mass creates an aura, where natural light will add a shifting dimension of interplay between sunlight and shadow. The two forms with their truncated arm branches assume an anthropomorphic presence; they seem to mirror each other, yet one casts a dark shadow of loss. In Homer’s epic The Iliad, Achilles’ spear is made of ash and on his death became a talisman, which allowed entrance and exit to and from the Underworld.
The staves extruding from the monolith forms visually reference the naturally occurring shoots that produce epicormic growth as the tree attempts to defend itself from the infection. The growth is a struggle for survival, the ailing tree’s final flourish.
It isn’t just the tree itself that is under threat. Ash is a keystone species on which many other species are dependent and risk losing their habitat should the tree fail and die. Losing a significant proportion of our ash trees will have a huge impact on our landscapes, ecosystems and species.
Two-thirds of SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) include important ash woodland, with some sites being of European importance, listed in Habitats Directive. The ash is a significant tree for about 89 species of invertebrates, 65% found on living trees, the remainder are sacrophagous/saproxylic (feeding on/living in decaying wood or dead timber and roots.)
Live ash is the sole foodplant for around 34 species of invertebrates (4 gall mites and 26 insects) with an additional 13 insect species using ash and a few other food plant species. Where ash is a prominent tree at local/regional level, it may be key to maintaining a richness of biodiversity – it is the main host tree for the Cramp ball fungus (Daldinia concentrica) within which 6 species of beetles breed, the majority are totally dependent on this fungus, which can be very scarce and normally insufficient of absent on other trees.
The Violet click beetle (Limoniscus violaceus), for example, is dependent on ash at 2 of 3 locations in the UK.
In the world of lichens, 536 species are found on Ash, 220 of which are nationally rare or scarce, 6 being given special protection under the Wildlife Countryside Act.
Buglife in a presentation at the “Ashscape” symposium organized by Edward Parker at The Springhead Trust succinctly summarized the impact of ash dieback disease: “We will see changes in host species but also some extinctions.”
So, what exactly is the cause of all this dieback and destruction in Britain’s woodlands?
It is in fact, a tiny fungus that was first identified in Eastern Europe in 1991. It was first spotted in the UK in 2012 and is now present in every county across the country. Initially called Chalara, the fungus is now widely termed Hymenoscyphus fraxineus and it has two phases to its life cycle. The first asexual phase will attack branches, bark and twigs of ash trees and is visible through lesions on the bark and drooping blackened leaves. The sexual, reproductive phase occurs as tiny, mushroom-like fruiting bodies on fallen leaves and stalks.
In June 2017, we had the opportunity to discuss and explore Hymenoscyphus fraxineus with scientists based at Alice Holt Lodge, the Forestry Commission’s scientific research station. A field experiment was already in progress, where a spore collecting machine was in action to catch air borne spores over a given time period. Infective spores from fruiting bodies are spread by the wind onto the leaves of healthy trees in summer, peaking in July-August and causing discoloration and wilting. A study in 2011 showed fruiting bodies produce, during 2 weeks, 1500 spores/hour *, 24 hour/day.
The wilting is more pronounced in drought, and the fungus forms bark necrosis that in turn leads to staining of the wood. Regrowth and epicormic sprouts shoot directly from the points of infection. Some species of ash are more susceptible than others to infection, such as ‘Pendula’ and ‘Jaspidea’, others species have low susceptibility, ‘Atlas’ and ‘Angustifolia’. Some of the species with high susceptibility, such as Pendula also show over time an encouraging recovery from the attack though mature specimens fare better than young cultivars. Trees younger than 40 years seem to be more sensitive. UK Government scientists have set out the most up-to-date understanding of the disease. Their assessment concluded that:
Undoubtedly, from both a scientific and cultural aspect there is much to be discovered in this unfolding blight. The Ashscape Symposium showed how some species of ash, such as Weeping ash Fraxinus pendula have been 100% contaminated yet there is almost 100% recovery.
The Ash Archive, the first public exhibition dedicated to The Ash Project organised by Kent Downs AONB, opened in January 2018 at the Derek Jarman Building, University of Kent in Canterbury.
Our contribution, Abhainn Ashik to Yr Onnen certainly testifies to the deep-rooted connection of the ash tree throughout the British Isles. Working from OS Open Names, 2,433 towns, villages, farms, rivers, dales, woodlands and significant buildings in England, Wales and Scotland have been identified bearing ‘ash’, derivations of ‘ash’ or early linguistic forms of ‘ash’ within their name. Presented as a wall drawing, each place name is hand-written in ash charcoal, revealing how the ash populates our country’s geographical and human atlas.
As part of The Ash Archive we also exhibited archival prints of sections of trunks and branches from a felled ash tree we transformed in the studio through a pyrolysis method, i.e. being burnt in an environment without oxygen, a process similar to that of making charcoal.
Now we turn to the major sculpture, two statuesque monolith forms pierced, or firing thousands of ‘devil’s fingers’, as arrows were nicknamed in the middle ages. The site for installation currently under review is aptly named the ‘Devil’s Kneading Trough’, but nothing is yet for certain, and as we know, the devil will have the last word!