They say it came from far away, from over the sea, brought by ships from beyond the shores of our world, from lands where only our most distant ancestors live. A shadow that fell upon these lands.
Thirty years ago or so, the first signs of the disease began to show, they say. Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, they named it: a fungus; microscopic, unseen, unheard yet whose spores can be blown on the breeze for hundreds of miles.
‘It first began to be known through the black patches that appeared on withered leaves, the dark, diamond shapes, girdles of death, around the twigs and the branches of the ash trees,’ they say.
Dieback, some call the disease. Others call it Chalara.
The names mean nothing.
There is no cure, they say.
Most will die, they say.
Yet they do not say of the choking, they do not say of the strangling, the slow suffocation from within as xylem clogs and water will no longer flow.
‘Some of the trees seem to have genetic factors which offer resistance to the disease,’ their experts say. ‘Or rather a tolerance to the chemical that the fungus produces – Viridiol – that is so toxic to so many.’
‘150 million mature ash trees will be lost in these isles in the next ten to twenty years,’ they say.
‘Now we know more about the disease,’ they say. ‘The areas worse affected are the densest environments where populations are greatest and the disease can spread most virulently. We know that those individuals most isolated, those spread out around the countryside fare better. We know, too, that the pathogen cannot survive above 35 degrees Celsius.’
We know only the fear of death, the whispering murmurs in the soil that tell of suffering, of those that feel the disease within them, the cold touch within.
There is hope they say.
‘Mother trees with tolerant seeds may be the way to see a possible future landscape where ash remains a common feature.’
The Tolerant Ones.
The Lucky Ones.
That is what we are, they say.
We were forged of disease-resistant genes, they say. We were not even born when the first spores arrived on these shores. We are those tolerant seeds spawned of the one per cent of mother trees who showed some form of resistance.
We are the future, they say.
Yet we are also those left behind. We are the ones that live on after the apocalypse, after so many millions in this archipelago have withered and blackened and died.
They do not say that death came because of them. They do not say that it was their doing that will kill millions. They do not say that the sickness arrived on these shores because they brought it here.
They use our bodies as fuel for their fires, as frames for their homes. They know we make oxygen for them to breathe. Yet they do not see each of us as individual, living beings, each with the right to live, to share safe, clean air and the same land. Only when they start to see us as valued others, will the world begin to breathe more easily.
So now we live with the memories of those millions who died still lingering in the soils that surround us, the brush of their touch in the earth still tangible.
We are the new breed, they say.
We reach higher each season and peer further over the horizon and dream of when the new breed of them will come.
They who see not with narcissistic vision.
They who feel for the other living beings in this world.
They who know us as valued others.
For until then, the fear remains that another shadow will fall which will turn all to darkness.
A piece commissioned by the folk band Fishclaw.