Yggdrasil Faces Its Ragnarok

Yggdrasil is the world tree of Norse mythology, more or less the cosmological centre of their universe.  Vast, supporting or penetrating or anchoring – or at the very least co-existing with – the Nine Worlds of Viking cosmology; a holy place even to those most holy of beings, the Gods.  The tree of trees.

It’s an Ash tree.  I like the Ash.  It doesn’t have quite the crowd-pleasing drama or character of Britain’s other dominant large trees – notably oak and beech – but it has its own beauty and grace, and I’ve seen big, old ones that are just wonderful.  Even its saplings are pleasing, with a straight, smooth precision to them that really makes them look like they’re racing up towards the light. And even when they don’t have leaves, they’ve got fantastic big, black buds that you know are going to crack open in the Spring to unfurl vivdly green frondy leaves unlike anything any other really big native tree can offer.

By most estimates, it’s the third commonest tree in Britain, making up a seriously important proportion of our woodlands.  I should probably go find some and enjoy them while I can, because Ragnarok has come calling for Britain’s Ash trees.

In this case, Ragnarok is not the giant wolves and serpents and fire giants of the Viking version, but a microscopic nemesis by the name of Chalara fraxinea.  2012 is the year Ash Dieback arrived in Britain, and there’s a very high probability it’s going to do here what it’s already done in parts of Continental Europe: kill most of our Ash trees.

That’ll punch big holes in the visual and aesthetic structure of our countryside, sadly.  Hedgerows, woodlands, parks will all get a new and unwanted makeover involving a lot – a really big lot – of dead or ailing trees.

I’m too young to remember the British countryside before Dutch Elm Disease all but wiped out one of the previously most common big trees in the second half of the 20th century.  It was a traumatic event for lovers of the British – especially the English – landscape, though.  The elm had been a key element of that landscape, and with a snap of some fungal fingers it was gone.

For purposes of comparison, consider this: there were something like 30 million elm trees in Britain when the lethal epidemic started in the 1960s.  They’re almost all gone now.  Over 25 million of them were dead before the end of the century; more by now.  How many ash trees are there in Britain?  Something like 80 million.  That’s what’s could be lost.  Almost three times as much as went with Dutch Elm Disease.

I suspect – and hope – it won’t be quite that bad.  It sounds, for various reasons, like it might be slightly more manageable than the Elm Apocalypse.  But it’s undoubtedly going to be bad.  The microscopic genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back in.  So wave bye-bye to those ash trees down the road, in your local wood, in your local park.  They may still be there in a few years time, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Makes you think.  Losing one majorly important large tree from your nation’s landscape could be an accident; losing two in the space of fifty years starts to look like something a bit more careless.  And it’s not an accident, of course.  Both epidemics have only become border-crossing crises because we have a globalised, interconnected trade that moves infected timber or trees around with precious little concern for biosecurity.  Some places – islands, often, which have seen at first hand the catastrophic effects that moving species and diseases around willy-nilly can have – are very, almost obsessively, careful about what goes in and out of their ports.  Britain, and most countries, are not amongst those places.

And what does for our trees could still do for us, one day.  Of all the end-of-civilisation scenarios that get put forward in speculative fiction, and in disaster-planning for that matter, there’s only one that I’ve ever found remotely worrisome (at least since I got past my young childhood fear of going to sleep because I thought the world would be extinguished by nuclear holocaust while I slumbered – I really had that, no joke).  Not worrisome, exactly, but all too imaginable.  That’s infectious disease.

It may never happen, but it certainly could: a virus that goes through the human species much like Dutch Elm Disease went through Britain’s elm trees.  If one of those does pop up, it’ll spread for the same reasons that the tree diseases spread, i.e. we’re all one world one.  Chances are it’ll be unplesant but manageable.  Just maybe, though, it won’t be.  And if it’s not, that’ll be our Ragnarok, I guess.  It’ll come, just as it’s coming for Yggdrasil, in an invisibly small, but inescapably effective package.

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