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23 july 2021

A neighbor of mine pointed recently to a tree in his front yard and said he'd be having a tree guy work on it. The tree looked nondescript to me. Maybe on the basis of the bark, maybe the leaves, I asked "Is that a mulberry?" No, he replied; it's a Texas ash.

After that, I started to notice Texas ashes more often; they must be among the top ten suburban shade trees in the Cross Timbers where I live. But they're not imposing like magnolias, loblolly pines, or sweetgums; not productive like pecans; not striking like sycamores and catalpas, or gnarled and sinewy like our many varieties of oak. Ash trees are just sort of there.

Edward Parker, in his new Reaktion Botanical book Ash, notes that ash trees are ubiquitous in temperate zones but often overlooked. They bear tufts of small flowers in season and then bunches of small winged seeds. Their leaves are sort of average-looking. Their bark is smooth when the trees are young and gradually corrugates as they get older, not offering a consistent, dramatic impression.

Centuries ago, ash was the preferred wood for spears, arrows, and the handles of tools. In the nineteenth century, ash was prized for carriages and their wheels – and for otter spears, gruesomely enough. A century ago, motorcars and later airplanes would often include substantial amounts of ash. Ash remains the material of choice for baseball bats and cricket stumps.

Easy to shape and tough, nicely-grained, ash is also used for paneling and some kinds of furniture, but it doesn't do well in damp and hasn't been a basic material in construction. But ash compensates – I realize I'm writing about it as if the trees sought human approval – by providing fodder for animals, "manna" from its sap as the basis of the sweetener mannitol, and firewood: the last because ash is easily pollarded and coppiced, and can provide crop after crop of sticks for fashioning into tools or simply for burning.

Parker starts with a taxonomy of the ash, a group of trees that spans temperate zones across the world but balks at growing in tropical or really cold areas. Though there are many species, they're not getting more distinct for me even after I read this chapter. Texas ash doesn't even appear, and Google is no help there either. The University of Texas insists that the Texas ash is something called Fraxinus albicans, but Texas A&M says it's Fraxinus texensis, and they could be the same thing and don't look like much to write home about anyway.

Ash trees are endangered. Ash "die-off," a fungal affliction, threatens the ashes of Europe; the emerald ash borer is making its way through North American trees, lovely when it emerges as an adult but a demolition expert in its larval phase.

Parker doesn't treat ashes in art or literature very much, and again, they may just be underappreciated in the arts. Shakespeare mentions them just once, in Coriolanus, and then only as a metonym for "spear." I guess the most famous ash poem is "The Ash Grove" by Edward Thomas, and in that one "Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made / Little more than the dead ones made of shade": deliberately unmajestic.

Ash trees feature more in mythology, notably as the "world ash tree" in various versions of Nordic myth. Parker mentions several times that Wotan, chief God of the Norse, hung himself upside down on said ash to gain mystical insight. Though he could hardly have helped it; the world ash supposedly supported everything that was, in all the stratified realms of Norse lore.

But if we don't pay more attention to the ash, it may soon be gone. That is the value of Parker's book: it's a wake-up call.

Parker, Edward. Ash. London: Reaktion, 2021.