by Edward Parker
Reaktion Books, £16
Beautiful, venerable and ever-present, the story of the ash tree has been intertwined with our own for aeons. Yet even old friends can have hidden depths and, in his new book, Edward Parker explores the evolution and cultural significance of the 43 species of Fraxinus that exist in the northern hemisphere.
The book begins with a chapter on morphology, botany and distribution, then proceeds to address threats such as ash dieback and emerald ash-borer beetle in a way that leaves the reader feeling informed, if not entirely encouraged.
The mythology of ash is intriguing and its extensive array of cultural and practical reveal a complex and diverse history. It seems that whether you are a wizard with a wooden staff in a sacred grove, an early human identifying wood with a low moisture content for your fire, or a Norse or Greek god in need of a spear, the adaptable ash will oblige. It appears in many folk traditions, and, although ash was historically used to cure everything from snake bites to fever, there may be more modern benefits, with research indicating promising treatments for both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
While the author’s expertise is not in doubt, Ash is a firm editorial hand away from perfection. It swings between botanical confidence and nervous storytelling, seemingly uncertain whether the remit
is that of scientific report, popular monograph or informal encyclopaedia, and a tendency to repeat facts, combined with a superfluity of bracketed clarifications, makes for a somewhat bumpy read.
Nevertheless, this book has much to recommend it. Thoughtful, even poetic in places, it covers scientific
and medical information thoroughly, and the treatment of history, myth and folklore makes it a wonderful sourcebook. For this it is worth its space on any shelf.