Thursday, 13 October 2011

A conker apocalypse - Ring Them Bells

For several years now, horse chestnut trees have begun to look more and more disgraceful, usually from about July onwards.  This is hardly one of the four horses of the apocalypse but it certainly feels like a tossed mane or a distant hoofbeat.  Most people are aware of the problem: some are more confused  and yet others appear to be like babes in a very diseased wood, looking up in astonishment when someone points out a mass of apparently dying trees.  Do we want to know what's happening?  Is there anything we can do?

I'm not abnormally attached to the magnificent yeasty masses of horse chestnut leaves and pink or white flowers, but I must admit to not wanting to understand exactly what is going on, simply because I cannot bear to contemplate such wholesale disaster.  I don't agree with my own approach at all but find myself set on such a path sometimes, whether or not I approve of my own behaviour.

I write this to expunge my own sin and ignorance and in order to get a grip.  Also because I visited Cambridge in the late summer and was distressed to see so many sad trees in crucial places.  The species was introduced to this country in the 16th century and feels as if it belongs.  Other places feel the same - perhaps because we are all so attached to the prickliness and the shininess of the fruits, so interesting and touchable.

The difficulties facing the horse chestnut are, it seems, double rather than multi-headed.  We have a bleeding canker and leaf-mining moth.  The first attacks the bark, the canker is often fungal but the rust coloured bleeding is bacterial.  Large dark patches appear on the trunk or round larger branches, in dry weather they blacken and flake, reddish dripping may appear.  If the patches girdle the trunk the tree will die, if it's a branch, it may crash to the ground.  The disease is not necessarily terminal for the spreading may stop and the tree may struggle on.  The disease spreads from infected material and has greatly increased, across Europe.

Second problem, a tiny little moth, which may have several families of caterpillars each year, who eat the soft leaf flesh between the two skins that hold the green together.  The mined areas become brown and dry, they join together and the leaf hangs on the tree like a memento mori, rusty, crackly, dead, dead, dead.  The moth appears to settle in once established in an area or on a tree, each year the leaves look awful more quickly.  They will not kill the tree but they make it an eyesore.  Spring brings  temporary green again, but the pleasure is gone.

And these trees have been planted throughout Europe, to beautify towns, roads and squares - they shade the knowing and the unknowing alike, offering conkers and sticky buds, hand-like leaves and endless, endless photosynthesis. I did not know, and am both pleased and saddened to discover, that you can grind up dried conkers, mix them with water and wash fragile textiles with the resulting liquid.  Apparently they will add a faint blue to white materials as well as remove stains.  They have also been used in the manufacture of some element of armaments - how can that be possible? Cue jokes about conker fights.

The little leaf-mining moth appears to have been about, in and around Macedonia, where the tree originated, for a very long time too but it has suddenly exploded in population density and speed of spread.  Modern transport whisking stuff along highways, warmer longer summers, drier periods, all these have been implicated.  Do not imagine there can be many natural phenomena that we don't influence.  You probably know that there are no chemical or other solutions to either the canker or the moth yet and you will remember Dutch Elm disease.

It will be obvious to all right-thinking people that there are many songs in the Dylan canon that might be appropriate here and I'm not going to refer to them all.  I do however believe that the tendency to catastrophise, or apocalyptacise as I would like to call it, may be a deep personality trait which seems like seeing the truth to some and self-indulgent drama to others.  As usual, a Dylan song reveals the listener not the singer.  Today I want to focus on one that brings strange tears to my eyes - it's called Ring Them Bells and we're going with a version shot through with verbal tics, crowd interpolations and incredible thrust - it's the one from Tell Tale Signs, Volume 8 of the Bootleg series.

The song is a vision from a high hill across valleys and fields.  Bells ring out, shepherds doze while their flocks wander, sacred cows, wheels and ploughs, children cry and innocence dies; there's a definite whiff of brimstone in the air.  And then the lines of fighting armies appear, presumably good against bad, the chosen few against the many heathen, but, oddly enough,what this fighting is doing is  "breaking down the distance between right and wrong".

I can't help seeing a kind of C.S.Lewis landscape, not really my sort of thing, but we're definitely in Last Battle territory.  Imagine the trees, brown and dying in the sunny green landscape, and the warning bells ringing out. Aslan is rustling through the dropping leaves, but we can't rely on him to win.

Now, I have no sense of a world beyond our own, religion of every kind is to me a mass of illustrations and myths which shine light on human fears, desires and conflicts as nothing else.  I hear the song in that spirit and it seems to be about choosing to know, or not to know, about the difficulties and horrors that must come.  It regrets loss of innocence at the same time as it exalts awareness, awakeness and knowledge.  It's probably fair enough to say that adults have no business being innocent. 

Of course there are different levels of response to the horse chestnut problem, even when you know what's happening.  Perhaps it just means they'll look awful every year, that's not the end of the world, quite true, staggering on is possible, sorry about the disfigurement everywhere.  Perhaps again, the scientists will find something.  Hmmmm, what and treat them all?  Perhaps, and this is my conclusion, we ought to be facing the problem and getting on with removing them.  Reducing the sources of reinfestation has to be sensible.  Let other trees expand to take their places, if they are in mixed plantings, or get on with planting limes, or planes or whatever seem most likely to endure in the future.  Shade trees are vital, and likely to become more so.  Don't talk to me about the disease afflicting oaks yet, I'll get there, but at the moment the scales on my eyes about that are still more comforting than painful.

It is at the moment of the unexpected continuation of the music, when you think it's ending but Dylan (I suppose) urges the band on, beyond and beyond, that's when I feel the delinquent sob rise in my throat.  I'm not sure why it happens, it may just be the effects of a corny musical device.  I wouldn't want to believe that however, I'd rather think about the mixture of thought and emotion for a little longer.

Right and wrong are fighting, but drawing nearer to each other in the song.  The earth is a sad mass of wounds;  fighting about how it's happened and what to do next feels like a more reasonable response than  choosing not to know.  I know I sound like a bleeding heart liberal.  What else is there? We are only another sort of fungus on the face of the earth and every life-form must live to its utmost - even cankers and moulds that destroy their own hosts. It's our nature to think and fight about it as we proceed with the destruction.

I suppose it would be reasonable to allow the moth free rein, for it seems unlikely to kill its feeder, but I think I would rather fight on the side that says the unsightliness is too bad to bear.  I'm a gardener you see, interfering with nature is my besetting sin.  Do I hear a neigh?  I'm not meaning to be flippant, but I'm afraid I have to live with my apocalyptic sensibilities and I do that any way I can.

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