Have you lived in Wiltshire long enough to have known the elm? There was a time when to be here was to live with elms – the dramatic lines of the English Elm in the lowland hedgerows, and the occasional stately Wych Elm in fields and woods. When we first came to Wiltshire, almost half a lifetime ago, they were beginning to die, and their skeletons can still be seen around the village: mute reminders of a greater time and a more marked-out landscape. But, although the mature trees all died, destroyed by a fungus carried by the elm bark beetle, the English Elms regenerated and saplings appeared in the hedges. Over the years, we have watched these grow, die back following further attacks, and then grow and die again, but a few minutes from where I’m writing this, near to the canal, there are three elms that have broken out of the confines of a hedge and are growing into what seem like reasonably healthy trees, one of which must be near twenty feet tall. My fingers are crossed for the future of these icons of another time, and what seems like another Wiltshire.
This is the first verse of the John Clare poem: To a Fallen Elm – that shows something of the significance that the tree had for people’s lives, although, inevitably, the poem is as much about the human condition as it is the elm.
Old Elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without while all within was mute
It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire
Enjoying comforts that was never penned …