A lifelong nature lover explores the versatility of the ash tree.
Journalist and avid cyclist Penn (It’s All about the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, 2011) grew up beneath the shadows of an ash tree and developed an uncanny connection to it: “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” In adulthood, the author lives in a small woodland area in the Black Mountains in Wales, where the ancient, self-propagating ash stands as the third most common broad-leaved variety. Penn celebrates the ash’s usefulness as the building block for ladders, flooring, crutches, shovel handles, and a wide range of furniture; its leaves are also medicinal for humans and nutritious for livestock. Noting how it is supremely practical yet historically undervalued and “reduced in our minds today to a material you burn,” the author comprehensively acknowledges the ash through diligent research, examples of the tree’s historical and social significance, and a series of interviews with master artisans. Penn provides profiles of village craftsmen who use and respect this particular species, including a bowyer, bowl-turner, Austrian toboggan maker, baseball bat manufacturers, and, most fascinatingly, a wheelwright. The author also oversaw the professional felling of a nearby ash in order to execute a “zero-waste policy” in his discovery of how many uses could be achieved from a single tree. Infrequently but no less interestingly, Penn also touches on the more intimate relationship he shares with trees and nature; he regularly enjoys the healing, stress-relieving, and spiritual properties of “forest bathing” (strolling among old growth woodlands), something which soothed the grief of his father’s sudden passing. By the conclusion of his project, Penn found 44 uses for the ash he’d felled. With an arborist mindset and smooth, poetic prose, the author reflects on the usefulness and the living splendor of trees, which he believes “summon us to witness nature; they are closest to its heart.”
An appreciative, environmentally sound reminder of how trees benefit and cultivate life on Earth.