I don’t usually write book reviews on any forum, but every now and again a book comes along which makes me want to. So here is the first of what will be an occasional series, for sure: a collection of the small number of books which (often unexpectedly) really make an impact. Lisa Samson’s just-published Epitaph for the Ash is one such book.
I received a copy because Lisa and I share the same literary agent. I read it very soon after it arrived because, many years ago now, when I was still running a small literary publishing house, Lisa wrote a beautiful essay which was published in one of our anthologies (A Wilder Vein, edited by Linda Cracknell. Sadly now out of print, as that publishing house died shortly after we sold it on.) I remembered Lisa not just as a master of description, but as being possessed of one of the hardest skills that a truly fine essayist must learn to cultivate: the art of creating a story whose slope is so gentle that you don’t see the closure coming until it’s upon you – and then you marvel at how cleverly and subtly that slope has been constructed, so that you’re compelled to turn around and go back to the beginning to read it all again – this time, more mindfully. You ‘have to’, I mean, if you too are a writer, as well as the founding editor of the UK’s first proper ‘nature writing’ magazine (EarthLines, which also, sadly, has now come to an end) and are interested in how the rare kind of nature writing that actually stays with you is pieced together.
Epitaph for the Ash was originally inspired by Lisa’s uncle, Gerald Wilkinson, a naturalist who wrote Epitaph for the Elm as Dutch Em disease began to wipe out Britain’s elms in the latter half of the twentieth century. It was also inspired by the advent in Britain of Ash Dieback, a disease which had begun to cut a swathe through the ash trees of Europe. And it was completed after Lisa was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour – one from which she recovered, but which left her with debilitating disabilities.
Which leads me to the reason why I was so touched by this book. It wasn’t because Lisa’s fate and the fate of Britain’s beautiful and iconic ash trees seemed now to be all too closely and tragically entangled. And it wasn’t because she is still a master of description, and a subtle and careful builder of narrative slopes. It was because, in spite of the very personal and significant human dramas which were taking place while she wrote the book, this is still a book about ash trees.
There are, of course references to her illness – which, to illustrate my point, is not announced until around page 84 (though it is briefly foreshadowed on page 58). And there are, as there should be, revelations of personal resonances with the fate of the ash trees she loves so much. The references to her diagnosis, her operation, its consequences – they’re there, though they don’t, frankly, use up many words. Lisa is in this book, and is clearly aware of the parallels – and perhaps even of the irony, that the author of a book about a potentially fatal disease should herself be diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease while writing it. But she displays little interest in turning a book which originally was to be about the fate of the ash into a book about it author, instead.
The power of this book comes in its understatedness. ‘I know that I will never again take anything for granted’, Lisa writes at the end, and that is all she needs to say. We understand. She doesn’t need to drown us in her emotion, or her pain; she doesn’t need to force understanding on us. It’s there for the sensitive reader to intuit. And in choosing, in spite of everything, to concentrate on the deep cultural and historical significance of the ash, Lisa overcomes a growing tendency for what is still described as nature writing to focus more on the nature of the writer than on the nature they’re writing about. Which can for sure produce some fascinating and lovely memoirs – but all too often, memoirs in which nature, as ever in recent human history, is positioned as a backdrop for the writer’s own dramas.
The good news is that there’s a glimmer of hope for the ash – which, with glorious symmetry, parallels the glimmer of hope in Lisa’s own life. That good news is the discovery, in 2016, that some trees have a tolerance of the disease, although many will still be lost. And so, at the heart of it, this book is, as Lisa suggests, ‘a rallying cry to pick up your walking sticks, pens, paintbrushes and cameras, then record and enjoy what we have while we still have it.’ Whether that’s your own life, or the continuing presence of the ash tree in the European countryside, this book offers a perfectly pitched message for us all.
Epitaph for the Ash is published by Fourth Estate (March 2018).