When the first reports of the fungus Chalara fraxinea’s arrival in the UK hit the press in 2012, this disease, so deadly to ash trees, became front-page news. Over the past six years, ash dieback, as the disease is also known, has been a regular feature of local newspapers and programmes, having spread all across the British Isles. On 2 January 2018, The Times announced the detection of ash dieback in Wytham Woods, a centre of woodland research on the outskirts of Oxford. In spite of all the arresting headlines still proclaiming ‘Ash Armageddon’, however, the initial shock is over. Most people have accepted the reality of this devastating tree disease; many would probably still be hard pressed to distinguish an ash in a line-up of the different British broadleaves. Lisa Samson’s book is bent on changing this. She concludes with what she describes as ‘a rallying call’ to all her readers ‘to pick up your walking sticks, pens, paintbrushes and cameras’. What makes this final note more chilling than stirring is the author’s recognition that it is too late: at the end of her pilgrimage to so many of the special ash sites of Britain, she is not urging vigilance, plant protection or replanting so much as recording and enjoying ‘what we have while we still have it’.
The clue is in the title: should anyone be clinging to the hope that reports of the ash’s death have been exaggerated, it will signal at once that, if anything, the reports have been understated. Samson quotes the predictions of Allan Downie, ‘an affable, bearded Scotsman’ and formerly