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Of spores and men

January 16, 2011

Sudden oak death

I was saddened to read in the Observer about a new threat to Britain’s oak trees in the form of an infection known as ‘Sudden Oak Death’, or Phytophthora ramorum. Despite its name, the blight doesn’t only infect and kill oaks, but also commercially-valuable species such as the larch. Britain’s forests are on the verge of potential disaster, and desperate attempts are underway to fell trees as a defensive measure before spring brings more diseased spores into action.

Anyone old enough to remember the devastation of Dutch Elm Disease in the UK in the 70’s and 80’s will find this news especially worrying. Trees are a remarkable, and too-often overlooked, part of our environmental landscape. In London it’s easy not to notice the many great plane trees which line the streets. In our parks, we tend to take the verdant backdrop to our children’s games or our dog walks for granted. But when those trees are suddenly removed – in vast numbers as in the case of the elms – we find ourselves bereft. Something ancient and precious has been stolen from our daily landscape. The loss is of something we took to be permanent. The park is made bare. The street is left naked. Human habitation suddenly seems colder – less connected to nature. In this way the danger to trees represents in microcosm the wider environmental fears of our generation. A silent friend – slow to grow, but easy to destroy. Life sustaining, but treated with complacency.

This story also contains a personal poignancy for me, which heightens the sense of human fragility against the march of the silent spore. Phytophthora ramorum is a close relative of Phytophthora infestans, or the Potato Blight – a traditional spore-carried infection that can devastate potato crops. This troublesome plant disease was absolutely devastating to Victorian Ireland, where the poor population subsisted almost entirely on the potato – a remarkable testimony its nutritional value. Yet the burgeoning population was living on a knife edge. Frequent failures of the crop due to Blight had led the country to near-starvation. Then – in one cataclysmic period between 1845-48, the crop failed completely and persistently. Millions of people starved. The appalling events, and their political consequences, re-wrote the history of Ireland, and set in train one of the greatest human diasporas. I am a descendant of that starving emigrant population, blown overseas in a desperate act of escape. In the 1990’s I created and co-produced a BBC television drama on this subject:-

– but what comes back to me in this latest story is the great fragility of our relationship with the land – and the devastating consequences of spores which can so quickly adapt to attack the careful balance we maintain with food supply and the environment.

The Observer report contains a final chilling lesson – the same lesson that was clearly demonstrated with Swine Flu. These spores are visitors from overseas – but have travelled with astonishing speed to infect many continents. We are a globalised society now, with timber cargo and human passengers crossing time zones in a matter of hours. The spores come on our clothing, on our luggage, and in the countless sea-bound containers which keep our modern world in motion.

What connects us makes us fragile. Disease travels as fast as we do. The trees we take for granted – the food we eat – even our health – are hostages to a fortune blown about in a fast wind. Science rushes to understand – to prevent. But she can’t always be expected to run fast enough. And when she can’t, we may find ourselves, like my forbears, mourning those things we took for granted.

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