At a conference in Ireland in 2004, I remarked that the Irish had had enough experience of imported plant disease to last them a thousand years – the calamitous potato famine in 1845. The man from the Ministry got up and bleated nothing could be done because this would restrict trade and the World Trade Organisation would not allow it. Either the WTO or the European Union will not let the stable door be locked until the plant pathologists have certified that the horse has gone: as just happened, yet again, with Ash Disease.
Oliver Rackham OBE FBA, The Ash Tree, 2014, p.162
Grief has always been communal, always been shared and consequently has traditionally been regarded as a sacred process. Too often in modern times our grief becomes private, carrying an invisible mantle of shame forcing our sorrow underground, hidden from the eyes that would offer healing. We must restore the conversation we need to have concerning the place of grief in our lives. Each of us must undertake an apprenticeship with loss.
Coming late to teaching, I have been startled by how moved I am by meeting other creative workers who are tackling eco-social concerns in their practices. My first time to facilitate a group interested in this topic was at the Cowhouse Studios, Co. Wexford last year. After asking everyone what aspect of the environment was of interest to them, I was so heartened to find Dublin-based contemporary art photographer Sarah Flynn, was exploring a subject very close to my heart – the demise of one of Ireland’s most prevalent, beautiful and ecologically important native trees – the Ash tree (in Irish Uinnius, Latin: Fraxinus excelsior) due to Ash dieback disease. Globalised market pressures and lack of investment in Irish tree nurseries has been part of the Ash tree crisis. It’s hard not to think that the great Ash dying across Ireland is another alarm call about our broken relationship to the living world.
As most of Hollywood forest’s naturally regenerating young tree seedlings coming up in spaces where we have thinned the Sitka spruce conifers are Ash, some are now 15 feet high, it has been heartbreaking for me over recent years to see this imported disease destroy young trees every time I step outside. I haven’t been able to easily write about it; we had previously envisioned that the Ash tree, in our transformation of Hollywood from a monoculture conifer plantation to a continuous cover forest, would be the main native tree species for our future forest – Ash trees have great biodiversity and timber values over the Sitka spruce conifer trees. Somehow I innocently thought Hollywood forest would escape the disease although my video here from 2013 reveals I was concerned about its possible arrival in Ireland. From my forestry colleagues I now know the air-borne fungal Ash dieback disease has now spread across Ireland and that there are no remedies to contain it. Ash trees will still grow but will come up like a shrub and dieback; older Ash trees in our hedges at Hollywood forest and across the country are dying and over the coming years (the fungus spreads more slowly in older trees) their leafless skeletons will become grey ghost trees.
The Ash tree in Ireland was once considered one of the ‘Lords of the Wood’
The Ash tree has been cherished in Ireland for millennia. Lora O’Brien writes ‘Irish trees were revered and protected as an essential part of each community, and recognised as both sacred and valuable. She relates how early Christians in Ireland, who recorded the older oral Brehon laws, reveal how ancient Irish people regarded the Ash tree as one of the valuable and noble trees – the airig fedo – ‘Lords of the Wood’.  The Ash tree is noted in Ireland’s medieval tree alphabet Ogham – simple lines carved in stone markers, and as Sarah is examining in her new body of photographic work Uinse, the Ash tree is rooted historically in the names of Irish towns and townlands across the country (see Logainm.ie – the website of Irish words found in placenames)
Why do we hear so little about the demise of the Ash tree?
Few in Ireland are tackling the cultural calamity that is unfolding with the death of Ireland’s Ash tree. Ireland’s cultural responses to the great dying, the collapse and extinction of the many other species is equally mute. Environmental scientists have known for decades that nonhuman species populations are collapsing but in Western culture we seem unable to process how our culture promotes this great dying. The failure in our cultural education not prioritising ecological understanding certainly plays a part. However, end-of-life counsellor Stephen Jenkinson and psychotherapist Francis Weller both argue that modern Western culture is highly death phobic. Western, modern culture they maintain is preoccupied with individualism, youth and celebrity, addicted to consumerism, this years’s fashion, gadgets and technological entertainments and would rather not consider human let alone mass nonhuman dying [3,4: Download the thought provoking podcast with Jenkinson and view a video about Weller’s work below].
Jenkinson and Weller argue Western culture largely anaesthetizes our ability to relate to the ecocide of the other-than-human world, the related mounting social injustices and the unprecedented intergenerational harm that our culture is now inflicting on childrens’ and other living beings futures. As a consequence, they believe we are unable to see and grieve the mass destruction that threads through our daily lives. Jenkinson, in his interaction with thousands of dying people and indigenous First Nation Canadians, believes Western culture is in trouble because it is profoundly ‘grief illiterate’ .
Squarely facing the seemingly insurmountable negative aspects of how our culture harms life is not easy or encouraged. Every environmental problem seems to be complex, accelerating in magnitude and deeply depressing. However, both Jenkinson and Weller stress that grieving is a learned skill, most certainly a necessary community process and an essential part, a ‘moral intelligence’  of how to start conversations about the heavy heartbreak of our ruined world, whilst at the same time cultivating gratitude for life. Grieving is essential so as to foster deep change in our comunities for better ways of living (here I am reminded of the communal learning and support during a Grief ceremony led so skillfully by indigenous people from around the world and other facilitated ‘circles for change’ I experienced at Findhorn some years ago).
Awareness of the eco-social emergency is new for many in Ireland, as it has only recently being presented in the mass media. People are grappling with the shock of climate breakdown scenarios taking effect within a decade, extinction-level rates of species loss and a Government that is only beginning to learn how to articulate policy for urgent and radical societal change. Measures so far are for ‘climate action’, more renewables, e-cars, increased tree planting and improved farming efficiencies.
Yet, I feel that unless we come together to grieve the enormity of our culture’s broken relationship to the living world, these responses will be superficial, like mere ‘green sprinkles on top’ as our recently elected Green EU Minister Ciaran Cuffe has pointed out, as they too easily promote business as usual, ecocide as usual.
Here I think the arts, still grossly under-acknowledged and unsupported for eco-social concerns in Ireland, have a key role to help us reflect and share the painful realities of our culture and point to new values of care that must necessarily extend beyond human-only concerns. As environmental ethnographer Kat Anderson argues in Tending the Wild (2005) in her research of how North West American indigenous cultures thrived over millennia without destroying their lands or waters, Western culture must similarly foster cultural practices that transmit the values of vibrant, ecologically-rich environments as a primary concern . And here in Ireland, we must celebrate and support cultural workers like Sarah who are doing hard work to look at topics we would wish were otherwise. Art in its myriad forms of expression has inclusive social power to help us start conversations for change.
Sarah’s Uinse work (2019)
Sarah is multi-talented: she is also an accomplished traditional Irish concertina musician (see her work on this new album) and her deep respect for the Ash tree is primarily because she is a camogie player (camogie is the traditional Irish stick-and-ball team sport played by women using wooden ‘hurls’ made from the Irish Ash tree. Hurling, for non-Irish readers, is an Irish game resembling hockey, played with a shorter stick with a broader oval blade. It is the national game of Ireland and may date back to the 2nd millennium BC ).
Sarah and I had a tutorial together after my talk at the Cowhouse last year, and I was so impressed with Sarah’s efforts to interview hurley manufacturers, foresters and forest mycologists like Jonathan Spazzi (Jonathan works with me on the Pro Silva Ireland committee) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – the Irish international amateur sporting and cultural organisation, focused primarily on promoting indigenous Gaelic games and pastimes. I was shocked and saddened to hear from Sarah that the GAA was already investigating a plastic alternative to the Ash wood they use for hurls!
Sarah and I found that we had both read Oliver Rackham’s (OBE, Honorary Prof of Historical Ecology at Cambridge University) book The Ash Tree (2014) (see quote above). I remember Sarah saying, how could Ireland pursue monoculture practices after our shocking famine tradegy – when the Irish population suffered a national tragedy when the main food crop – the potato failed quickly to a fungal blight. She asked, already quite aware: “Isn’t Ash dieback just like the potato famine?”
Of course, there were colonial economic decisions that compounded Ireland’s potato famine tragedy but yes, Sarah was right.
Sarah’s tryptich of images ‘Plantation’ (2018) created shortly after I met her
Monoculture plantation practices, have been and still remain a largely unquestioned mainstay of industrial forestry and agri-business across the world. As cultural theorist Donna Haraway has determined in renaming the ‘Anthropocence’ as the ‘Plantationocene’, monoculture plantation practices across the world have played a significant role in destroying the diverse flora and fauna that foster species’ resilience . Indian anti-GMO seed activist and scientist Vandana Shiva has long argued the ‘monoculture of the mind’ that promotes single species farming and forestry is a madness as it is unable to see that ecological wellbeing and resilient ongoing livelihoods rest on fostering land practices that generate habitats for diverse species (biodiversity) . In Ireland, our mass monocultural forestry plantations will be particularly vulnerable to increasing extreme wind events and climate breakdown, particularly our warming winters that better suit tree pests and fungal diseases (Pro Silva Ireland recently hosted a talk by Czech forester, Dr Pavel Bednar about widespread insect pests and diseases rapidly undermining forests across Europe).
at the Cowhouse Studios ‘How to Flatten a Mountain’ 12 day residency
In Hollywood forest, we don’t only have Ash dieback but many Sitka spruce conifer trees are turning crispy orange and suffering severe needle loss due to conifer aphids. We have had serious aphid attacks since 2015. Strikingly, a few 30 year-old trees have died due to aphid damage over successive years as our Irish winters warm, and our trees are growing more slowly as a result. I have left these dead conifer trees as standing deadwood for insects but also to show visitors how aphids can kill trees, not just damage rosebushes.
So every time I step outside my door I find am facing the key concerns, the grave harm that industrial forestry has spread across the world. Whilst the loss of the Ash is tragic, more than ever, I’m so glad we have moved toward continuous cover forestry; I am heartened that other species, Oak, Beech, Sycamore, Holly, Yew and Alder (many planted by resident birds) are happy here amongst the conifers, and that some introduced plantings of the rare Irish Bird Cherry tree and the Western Red Cedar (a conifer that has far better timber values than Sitka Spruce) are thriving. There are imminent challenges to tree species everywhere so we must radically change towards regenerating forest species diversity urgently.
So I wish to thank Sarah for helping me talk about the loss of Ash trees and other tree species. I hope her and others eco-creative practices will inspire more conversation about how, as activist writer Naomi Klein recognises that ‘everything must change’ in Ireland and elsewhere. In a recent interview US writer and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore has spoken about how attending to grief doesn’t paralyse us, instead she reminds us that
[o]ur civilization has rituals that help us draw strength from grief, get our courage back, and continue forward. Maybe that’s the primary function of religion. Surely it’s an important function of art. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” Can we turn our grief toward positive action?
We need creative ways to acknowledge loss and extinction. If there are trucks going down the road in the countryside pouring poisons on wildflowers, there ought to be a hearse following them and a string of cars with their lights on to acknowledge the deaths. If construction crews are bulldozing a marsh for a parking lot, there should be a choir there singing a requiem. If you poison your lawn, you should post a sign that says, “Not safe for children and animals.” At the site of every clear-cut there should be a little shrine like the ones families put up for a young person killed in a car wreck. Erect wooden crosses on stumps. Organize people to wear black and to stand along the line the seas will reach in 2050.
The arts can help us shift from overwhelm and inaction; from picturing harm to envisioning ecological healing. And I think this final quote from Kathleen says it all:
Maybe more writers [and creative workers] should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the ones that will break our hearts. It’s cowardly to shy away from sad stories. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, even when our hearts are broken, we have to sing the “broken hallelujah.”
Do let me know of cultural works that are helping modern society greive and move forward in the comments below and thank you so much Sarah. Congratulations on your courageous and important work from us all here in Hollywood forest!
Uinse exhibition by Sarah Flynn – opening 4 July 2019
Building from last years’s Cowhouse residency and exhibition, Sarah has produced a new body of photographic images that reflect Ireland’s Ash dieback disease crisis. She was delighted to tell me some months ago that her new work had been selected by an independent panel for the New Irish Works – a triennial group exhibition run by the PhotoIreland Foundation to represent and promote the growing diversity of contemporary photographic practices in Ireland.
See Sarah’s Uinse at the New Irish Works exhibition:
Museum of Contemporary Photography of Ireland
The Printworks, Dublin Castle, Dame Street, Dublin
I highly recommend listening to Terry Pattern’s podcast with Stephen Jenkinson  and Fancis Weller’s video on grief , links below:
 TERRY PATTERN (2016) ‘Death Phobia and Grief Illiteracy — How They Distance Us from One Another, Our Planet, and Our World Crisis — with Stephen Jenkinson’. Beyond Awakening [podcast] https://www.beyondawakeningseries.com/2016/01/jenkinson-1-16/
 FRANCIS WELLER summary on grief, see his video here: https://youtu.be/EaI-4c92Mqo
 M. KAT ANDERSON Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. University of California Press.
 Google dictionary.
 OLIVER RACKHAM, (2014) The Ash Tree. Little Toller Books, Dorset.
 HARRAWAY, Donna (2015) ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’. Environmental Humanities, Vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.
 VANDANA SHIVA (1993) Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. Zed Books.
 KATHLEEN DEAN MOORE ‘If Your House Is on Fire: Kathleen Dean Moore on the Moral Urgency of Climate Change’ Interview with Mary DeMocker. Minding Nature: Spring 2019, Volume 12, Number 2
PS: I am developing Haumea – new ecoliteracy services for creative people. I am beginning to offer my skills: to write about eco-themed exhibitions, undertake art and ecology teaching, art & sustainability policy research, and I’m just about to begin interviewing creative people from all art disciplines to develop an online course on ‘essential ecoliteracy for creating great ecological art’.
If you are interested in any of the above, please see here for more details.