A fruit­less pe­ti­tion in verse

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

In the late sum­mer of 1787, Robert Burns set out on a tour of the Scot­tish High­lands. He had been in­vited to stay at Blair Cas­tle, the fam­ily seat of John Mur­ray, fourth Duke of Atholl; his lord­ship ad­vised the poet to be sure to make the de­tour to view a lo­cal beauty spot, the neck­lace of falls known as Bruar Wa­ter. Burns found Atholl pic­turesque and beau­ti­ful ‘‘but much im­paired by the want of trees and shrubs’’. Af­ter he had ne­go­ti­ated the steep track up and down from Bruar Wa­ter he lamented in his jour­nal that there be­ing ‘‘not a bush to be seen about them [marred] much their ef­fect’’.

He was not the first to be so dis­ap­pointed. Wil­liam Gilpin, an apos­tle of the Pic­turesque move­ment which fore­shad­owed Ro­man­ti­cism in Bri­tain, had strug­gled up to the falls 10 years be­fore, only to re­mark that the cas­cades were ‘‘scarce worth so long and per­pen­dic­u­lar a walk. One of them in­deed is a grand fall, but… so naked in its ac­com­pa­ni­ments… that upon the whole it is of lit­tle value.’’

The pub­li­ca­tion of Po­ems Chiefly in the Scot­tish Di­alect in April of 1787 had brought Burns great celebrity; this he put to work for Scot­tish na­ture by writ­ing a poem in the per­sona of Bruar Wa­ter it­self, beg­ging the duke to reveg­e­tate the tree­less hill­sides.

It is pos­si­bly the first time that any poet ven­tril­o­quised for inan­i­mate na­ture. Of all of Burns’s po­ems The Hum­ble Pe­ti­tion of Bruar Wa­ter is pos­si­bly the least known. Let lofty firs, and ashes cool, My lowly banks o’er­spread, And view, deep-bend­ing in the pool, Their shadow’s wat’ry bed: Let fragrant birks, in wood­bines drest, My craggy cliffs adorn; And, for the lit­tle song­ster’s nest, The close em­bow’ring thorn. Though both the duke’s and the poet’s pos­ter­ity may wish to be­lieve that his lord­ship leapt to the task, it took him a good 10 years to be­gin reveg­e­tat­ing, by which time Burns was dead. The duke ig­nored Burns’s good ad­vice, plant­ing 120,000 Scots pine and larch.

The choice of larch was pos­si­bly ill-ad­vised; Larix de­cidua is na­tive to cen­tral Europe where it tends to grow on well-drained hill­sides in iso­lated stands; in Scot­land it was grow­ing well out­side its range. Burns was a coun­try­man, and his ad­vice is to grow the na­tive wood­land mix, fir, ash and birch, with hawthorn and dog rose to pro­vide habi­tat. The sober lav’rock, war­bling wild, Shall to the skies as­pire; The gowd­spink, Mu­sic’s gayest child, Shall sweetly join the choir; The black­bird strong, the lin­twhite clear, The mavis mild and mel­low; The robin pen­sive Au­tumn cheer, In all her locks of yel­low. “Lave­rock” is the Scots name for the lark, “gowd­spink” for the goldfinch, “lin­twhite” for the lin­net, “mavis” for the songth­rush. The word “bio­di­ver­sity” had not been coined in Burns’s time, but he cer­tainly knew what it was.

Five thou­sand years ago Scot­land was cov­ered with a mo­saic of wood­land, pine­for­est, heath, scrub and bog; its de­for­esta­tion was largely a con­se­quence of hu­man set­tle­ment, clear­ing and graz­ing. Though pock­ets of wood­land had been pre­served to pro­vide fuel and tim­ber, by the end of the 18th cen­tury even th­ese were con­sid­ered sur­plus to re­quire­ments and no longer pro­tected from the ma­raud­ing deer bred for hunt­ing on the larger es­tates.

The Duke of Atholl’s reaf­foresta­tion, which even­tu­ally amounted to 15mil­lion trees and brought him the so­bri­quet of ‘‘Planter John’’, did not start a fash­ion. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, many of the Duke’s plant­ings were cleared, to be re­placed with a mix­ture of hy­brid larches, Scots pine, fir and spruce while na­tive broadleaved species, rowans, wil­lows, aspen and birches were left to seed them­selves along the braes.

We can only won­der now whether it was the close plant­ing of larches that has led to the de­vel­op­ment of the disease that is now killing larches in Bri­tain. The disease, caused by an or­gan­ism called Phy­toph­thora ramo­rum, is more ram­pant on the wet­ter, western side of the coun­try, which seems to sug­gest that cul­tural con­di­tions have some­thing to do with its preva­lence. In Oregon and Cal­i­for­nia P. ramo­rum is killing oak trees; in Bri­tain oak trees in the wild are hardly af­fected. The ex­pla­na­tion is that the Amer­i­can form is a dif­fer­ent mat­ing type. The usual as­sump­tion, that a fun­gal pathogen like phy­toph­thora is trans­mit­ted by con­tact, seems ill-founded. Like many other pathogens af­fect­ing trees, the lethal forms of phy­toph­thora seem to de­velop within in­ten­sive plant­ings. Chalara frax­inea, the or­gan­ism now killing ash trees, has, as its name sug­gests, al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with ash trees. It be­came a lethal pathogen within Euro­pean plan­ta­tions, pos­si­bly within the nurs­ery in­dus­try.

It looks very much as if dis­eases like P. ramo­rum are part of the syl­van en­vi­ron­ment; trees may suf­fer from them oc­ca­sion­ally and usu­ally re­cover, un­less the grow­ing con­di­tions are such as to fos­ter an enor­mous in­crease in the preva­lence of such in­fec­tions, where­upon they turn lethal.

The so­lu­tion to loss of habi­tat is, as Burns un­der­stood, not to plant huge num­bers of a very few species, some of them ex­otic, all of them prob­a­bly much too close to­gether, but to re­store the en­demic wood­land mix. Plant­ing trees is not enough; wood­land re­quires man­age­ment at least un­til it has reached ma­tu­rity, in some cases for­ever.

As those good peo­ple now buy­ing up wood­land are re­al­is­ing, in the 21st cen­tury trees can­not be left to take care of them­selves.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.