Saturday 27 October 2012

The Great British Ash Tree. Not.

In the inner realms of sociology or history lectures and the like, the phrase: 'nation is a construct' is something you can jot down and then use in an indigestible way from then on. I'm sure I've done it many times. And then you hear something on the radio or something that someone says that brings you up sharp to remind you that it isn't a hollow phrase at all.

The news this morning is full of the story about a fungus affecting ash trees. The two main aspects of this story are that in Denmark, 90% of the ash trees have already died because of the fungus and that there is a possibility that the same could happen on some, most or all of the islands (or parts of islands) that make up the UK. There seem to be two main ways in which this can happen: through imports of ash trees and on the wind. The government is about to take action against imports of ash trees by banning them on Monday.

Interviews with experts are happening all the time and I'm not concerned directly with what the scientific content of these other than to say by way of preface that it is quite possible that banning imports will have zero effect (but looks like tough, virile, robust government) as the spores of the fungus can reach the UK's islands carried on the wind. (Surely no coincidence that the first wild woodland where the disease has been found is in Norfolk and Suffolk in direct line from easterly, north-easterly winds from Scandinavia?)

What interests me for the moment is how this disease is being 'constructed' (yes) as a 'national' crisis or 'national' tragedy. Experts have reminded us that the ash is a 'native' tree, that it makes up a large percentage of the woodland 'we' love and 'we' have already lost pretty well all the elm trees through 'Dutch' Elm disease and it could happen to another of 'our' native/national and iconic trees, the ash.

So, even as the facts tell us that this is an international illness/disease (as all illnesses and diseases are), the emotive content of the news items is that it is a national tragedy and that the best way to deal with it is to ban imports. I won't even deal with whether it's a tragedy or not. I don't know if it is or it isn't. I'm bemused by how quickly something like this can be tacked on to the national flag when it is fundamentally and essentially an international matter, an international phenomenon. Because it's being constructed as a national problem, there are certain aspects of the story that are at the very least odd.

Denmark is not an island. To be talking just about Denmark is very strange. If this government is banning imports (thinking that this is a solution) what are other countries doing? Sweden is very near to Denmark, Germany shares a border, the whole of northern Europe is nearby. However we should describe this disease, it must for starters be a north European matter.

Does any of this matter? After all, it's just (or only) a question of how people in the news describe things. No big deal? Perhaps not. But when historians and sociologists use that phrase 'construct nation' and people dispute it, or make the claim that by constructing it verbally they also construct it 'materially'...I wonder. What's more, it may well lead to crap science. We shall see whether banning imports makes any difference. I suspect not.

In the meantime, I'm not going to allow myself to be aroused in some kind of national defence, or national act of sorrow about ash trees. If ash trees are under threat, they're under threat across northern Europe. I live and work and travel in northern Europe. I will have the same feelings about a lack of ash trees whether I'm in London, France, Denmark, Holland, Germany or anywhere. They're not my ash trees. The 'we' or 'our' they belong to are, for the present moment northern European and may well turn out to be (I don't know) world ash trees!