By the Late John Rowing

Trees are on many peoples mind these days since we have been told that it is highly likely we will lose all our ash trees to a form of Die Back.

A forester friend once told me ‘trees are an integral part of the Planet’s heart and lungs, without them the world in its present state would cease to exist and we humans seem to be doing all we can to damage them’. This was in the late nineteen forties when I was managing a property that bordered many square miles of virgin forest. We were standing on the high African moorland well above the tree line. Below us the forest, for which my friend, the Forest Officer, was responsible, stretched for hundreds, maybe thousands, of square miles. Like the majority of officers in the Colonial Service he was passionate about his job, the big boys in London generally chose their men well and like most in the Service had an undoubted enthusiasm for their department that seemed to increased over the years. This was especially evident in those of the Forest and Game Departments for they guarded their trees and animals as if they were members of their own family.

In colonial days to be caught cutting down trees that you were not supposed to, or killing an animal which was on the protected list or not on your license, would land you in big trouble. You could well spend the rest of your life being watched by Forestry Scouts or Game Rangers with a keenness perhaps rivalled only by the Gestapo. It was not unknown for some Foresters and Game Wardens and others in authority to keep what was referred to as a B.B.B. or a ‘Bad Blokes Book’ in which to keep a record any misdemeanors. I have done so myself and found it most helpful. As each entry was signed by the culprit they rarely had more than two comments after their name.

Trees have played a major part in the development of our nation and people. Until the process of turning coal into coke was developed, charcoal was needed in the production of steel for I believe coke burns at a higher temperature. I was taught to fire, or forge weld by my African blacksmith who had worked on the Kakamega gold fields. As some of the chain links on our work oxen’s trek gear, the chains and yokes with which the teams were hitched together to pull wagons and agricultural implements, were inclined to wear thin with use and break, so the ability to forge new links saved us a great deal of money. To fire weld needs far more heat than that generated by the normal hand pumped forge, so we reduced the size of bellows nozzle and put two men to sweat away working on the handle. I have always thought myself lucky to have lived a life doing and making things in the manner they were made before the days of mass production.

Before the days of metal pit props thousands, indeed millions, of trees were grown for wooden ones. While metal ones were undoubtly stronger I have been told that when first used after W.W.2. miners found it disconcerting that they did not ‘speak’ or make the creaking noise of wooden props, which often told of movement in the roof.

When we think of the ore, coal and other minerals that contributed to our industrial wealth through out the ages the part timber played becomes apparent, we would have been nowhere without trees.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that trees together with the copper we were able to produce and sheave, or line the bottom of our wooden boats thus preventing the growth of marine weed so making them faster than most of our sea trade competitors and at times our enemies made us masters of the sea.

But long before that we made our mark in the world due mainly to the ash tree. The part played the bowmen or archers in our history is, or should be well known. There are two basic types of bow, the Long and Crossbow. The English and Welsh used the Longbow while our traditional Continental enemies favoured the crossbow.

There is no doubt that the crossbow is far more accurate a weapon. As a young boy I was always a bit doubtful about William Tell and his ability to slice an apple placed on his son’s head in two until I realized it was more than likely that he used a cross bow where the margined of error was very much reduced. The cross bow is fired from the more solid position having the arm and shoulder to steady one’s aim just as a modern rifle is.

It is in fact very similar to that weapon in shape and action having a butt, is held by two hands, has an aiming point down the main frame and is discharged by pressing a trigger. In the hands of a competent user it is very accurate. Before the advent of high powered air weapons it was used extensively in the darting of animals in the African bush by members of the various Veterinary and Game Departments.

As a weapon of war however it had one very bad drawback it was so cumbersome to reload that the longbow men were generally able to get off several flights of heavy armour piercing missiles while the opposition was reloading. You may be surprised that a missile fired from a length of ash stave and bowstring would produce such velocity. But I will remind you that a woman’s stiletto shoe heel can

fracture a mans skull if swung with a bit of force. (The wife of a friend of mine was in a shop in Kisumu Kenya when a man burst in waving a panga, or heavy bush knife. Being a lady of fashion, (yes we had such even in the Kenya bush) she whipped off her shoe and caught the intruder a smack on the side of his head, he did not carry through his attack but spent some time in hospital before being sent to prison.

Judging by the number of ash bow staves found in wrecks such as the “Mary Rose,” Henry The Eight’s ill-fated flagship recovered from the seabed some few years ago I would suggest the ash played a great in our history.

The ash is a very versatile wood and for many years played a great part in our transport system for large numbers were used in the making of many high-class horse drawn vehicles. Not only could some spectacular carridge shafts be made by heating, steaming and shaping but most wheels had ash spokes.

It was not so long ago that my wife and I were in the happy position of visiting various parts of the country. In the hot weather we often stopped in the shade of an oak or chestnut tree to eat our lunch. It was surprising how many of these apparently fine healthy trees appeared to us upon closer inspection to be suffering from very early stages of some firm of ‘die back’ or some other form of infection.

In the nineteen eighties there was a great deal of worry about acid rain killing off trees all over Europe and indeed it was even blamed for some water pollution. If memory serves me correctly it was eventually discovered that the source of this was air pollution caused by a giant smelting plant in Canada carried over the Atlantic on the ‘Jet Stream’. I believe this was rectified by the toxic fumes it gave off being ‘scrubbed’, delightful term, before being released into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately with the marked movement of plants and insects moving northwards being recorded we may well face an invasion of insects and diseases that we have not yet seen this far north and the result of them on our eco system are as yet unknown.