At about this time last year I found some seeds in a stream. I thought I recognised them, but having not seen them outside of a book before, wasn’t sure. On further checking it became evident that I had found evidence of a wych elm. This year I’ve found perhaps a dozen of them, some close to where I live. This year they have all seeded, last year they didn’t, and the fine green snow of their early summer seeds, fills me with awe. Because by all accounts, this is an unlikely state of affairs.
The British elms are gone, destroyed by Dutch elm disease before I was born. The Forestry Commission reckons some 60 million trees were wiped out in two epidemics, in the 1920s (my grandmother’s childhood) and 1970s (I caught the tail end). She talked of beautiful, stately trees, destroyed forever. I wonder with hindsight if this gentle haunting by the ghosts of departed trees shaped my love of lost thing. Lost forests. Lost mammals (aurochs especially). I have a heightened sense of the fragility of life, the ease with which something precious can be lost. Perhaps that’s entirely down to my grandmother mourning the elms.
To find elm seeds in a stream in 2014 was a magical, unreal sort of moment for me. The people with me on that day did not believe what I thought I’d found because they, like me, thought the elms to be gone. There is a little part of me that just plain refuses to see ‘lost’ as ‘gone forever’ and sometimes that holds true. There’s Project Tauros, using DNA from an auroch tooth to figure out a breeding program. Aurochs are not entirely gone, their DNA remains in domesticated large hairy cattle, and something a bit like them could yet come back.
The elms are not gone forever. There are elms in Stroud.
At the moment, humans are destroying habitats and species at an obscene rate. This, simply, has to stop. There are so many precious and beautiful things hanging on at the edges. It is a wonder that they can and do hang on, and make comebacks and refuse to be driven into history, but we should not count on their tenacity alone to solve the problems we create.