The pointless, self-defeating burning of ash trees could have been avoided

If it hadn't been for a name-related confusion, the government might have imposed a ban on imports of ash and ash products years ago.

What’s in a name? Ash fungus by any other name would have burned as sweet in the recent bonfires. But the name does make a difference. Had it not been for name-related confusion, the government might have imposed a ban on imports of ash and ash products years ago. Then the pointless, self-defeating burning could have been avoided.

EU rules prohibit a ban on imports of a species if the threatening pathogen is already endemic. The ash fungus is widely reported as being Chalara fraxinea. This is widespread in the UK, and benign: no ban was possible. However, many fungi exist in two forms, one that reproduces sexually, and one that reproduces asexually. In 2009, researchers suggested that the pathogen was in fact Hymenoscyphus albidus, a sexually reproducing version of Chalara fraxinea. A ban, then, was still impossible. But last year Swiss researchers showed the pathogen to be a different organism that they named Hymenoscyphus pseudo-albidus. That could have been banned.

Things could get worse. A decision taken at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne last year means that mycologists – those who study fungi – will no longer be allowed to give separate names to the sexually and asexually reproducing variants of a species. Ironically, the idea is to limit confusion. With all the evolving variations of our forest pathogens, it’s likely to cause more problems than it solves.

Evolution is fearsome to behold. We’ve been watching it in our hospitals for years – it is what gave us our antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Put a wide variety of bacteria together in a confined space with plenty of very habitable niches and they will indulge in an orgy of gene-swapping. This creates new strains, many of which are resistant to all known toxins.

Ash dieback is another example of an evolved pathogen. It arose in Poland in 1992. There is nothing we can do about it except let the naturally resistant trees emerge as winners in the evolutionary arms race. It’s impossible to tell which trees will survive without carrying out a genetic analysis; that’s why burning swaths of ash trees is self-defeating.

In truth, the issue over naming the fungus is probably a convenient scapegoat. Researchers were advising an import ban years before anyone looked into whether the fungus was of an endemic species. Somehow, no one wanted to react to the threat, and it’s not just the UK’s researchers who didn’t want to see the coming evil: Danish experts pointed out an impending problem to the Swedes, and they did nothing either.

Import duty

What we can do now to safeguard the future of our forests is reduce the demand for imported plants. Read the scientific literature on plant pathogens, and you find that experts are issuing 13 times as many alerts on new plant-infecting fungi as they were in 1995. The ash fungus may be one of the relatively few natural mutations that have occurred in recent times: most of them are triggered by human activities. Plant pathologists put the blame squarely on the taste for imported plants.

Our craving for exotic plants and ready-grown trees for our gardens and public spaces has moved plants and their pathogens around the world in unprecedented numbers. In new environments, the pathogens swap genes and evolve into forms for which native species have no resistance.

The surging global trade in plants is essentially a huge microbiology experiment that is destroying the world’s forests. But perhaps we think that interesting suburban gardens are worth it?

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

 

Ash trees in Pound Farm Woodland, where many have been identified as having Ash Dieback Disease. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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“My words stayed in folders”: life as a fandom lurker

I was listening to the conversations of other fans, but I wasn’t talking. For years—for more than a decade, in fact—I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about my favourite characters. Lots of children do this: whether they write it down or act it out, on playgrounds or with a handful of dolls, this kind of storytelling is a natural part of play.

As I entered adolescence, my stories grew elaborate. I took someone else’s characters and gave them massive backstories and a supporting crew of original characters in what I later realised was fanfiction, original stories drawn from someone else’s source material. (In this case, it was a corporate board: I was fixated on self-made millionaires, and told my parents and teachers I was going to grow up to be a “ruthless businesswoman.”) I wasn’t ashamed of my stories, but I didn’t share them with—or even mention them to—anyone else.

I’ve met a lot of people who played with other writers’ characters as a child. “I did that when I was a kid,” they tell me. “As I got older, I grew out of it.” But as I got older, I grew into it—and I went online. By the time the internet was truly accessible to me, past those blisteringly slow dial-up years to the point where, if I stayed up late enough, I could have the big, clunky desktop in my parents’ kitchen all to myself, I was fourteen. And right around then, I fell hard for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The fan sites of the late nineties looked like much of the organic web of the late nineties: garish colours and bad fonts. With Buffy, there was a lot of black. I don’t remember being surprised to find Buffy lovers on the web; after all, many of my friends were as obsessed as I was. (I modelled my Buffy scrapbook, painstakingly cut-out articles about the show and its cast, on one a friend had made, though hers was focussed on Angel, and mine was much more sensibly about Rupert Giles.) Many of the people making and reading these Buffy sites were adults, but that didn’t make a difference to me.

What did make a difference was the night I discovered that other people wrote fanfiction. I’ve written before about the utter dissonance of that moment of discovery, about how confused I was by the first story I encountered. Even though I loved writing this stuff, it never occurred to me that other people would want to spend their time rearranging beloved characters on the page.

There were whole archives built around it, I soon learned, and prolific authors who posted work on individual sites. (This was 1999, early days for future fanfic juggernauts like fanfiction.net and LiveJournal.) There was so much to read. People sorted work by character, by romantic pairing, by genre, by trope. They were using fiction to talk back to the show—and to each other.

I dipped a toe into online fanfiction waters, slowly at first, until suddenly, I was drowning in it. I left one fandom and entered another: within a few years, I was wholly consumed by Harry Potter, where I’d stick around for close to a decade (and where now, weirdly, I have returned). As I read, I kept writing - other peoples’ fanfic only gave me more ideas. My drafts migrated from notebooks to word processors and my desktop folders were full of outlines and half-finished fics.

But my words stayed put in those folders: they were as private as they’d ever been. Online fandom was a world where people were having conversations about the things they loved. For more than a decade, I was listening to the conversations, but I didn’t say a word. I was a lurker.

In fact, most people in online communities are lurkers. What was once relatively easy to define—there were people who posted things on or moderated message boards, for example, and people who didn’t—has grown murkier with the rise of social media. But the prevailing wisdom still favours the 90-10-1 rule, which argues that 90 per cent of the people on the web are largely passive readers, 10 per cent are actively engaging with content, and just one per cent create that content. I, like the majority of my fellow fans, have spent most of my fandom life in the broad base of that pyramid.

Loving something with that deep, fannish love, can be a complicated thing. It’s different for everyone, I suppose, but for me, lurking has always sprung from a weird duality: I simultaneously want to talk about the objects of my fandom while also wanting to keep them incredibly private. In my lurking years, I felt like I loved this stuff just as much as everyone who was posting and creating and sharing, but then, I didn’t have proof  beyond my thousands of words of fanfiction, sitting in endless folders on my desktop.

For me, online fanfiction has always been a very private space that paradoxically exists in the public sphere. Over the years I’ve encountered stories that I hold as close to my heart as the source material they were based upon. Cloistered in my fanfiction-reading world, cut off from a lot of other fannish discussion, I missed interpersonal dramas and ship wars and, as arguments are colloquially known in many fan communities, wank. Even when fanfic writers and readers moved en masse to LiveJournal, I steered clear of the personal posts and diary entries: the most I’d see of authors I was reading were little notes at the beginning of chapters: “Sorry this is going up late! Life got in the way.” Fanfiction writers were, for me, their writing alone.

Lurkers occupy a difficult space in fan communities, which are usually built on unpaid labour. For many fic writers, part of the reward of writing lies in communicating with their readers, who are fellow fans. For most of my lurking life, I read in spaces where the only way to interact with writers was to leave a comment, but in recent years, I’ve done most of my fic reading at the Archive of Our Own, where a “kudos,” a little heart button, can be used instead. I regularly see Tumblr posts about the vast gulf between the number of people who leave kudos versus comments. Fandom, many argue, is powered on dialogue and verbal encouragement, and writers need more than a little “like.” And who can blame them?

But after years lurking, of revelling in fanfiction communities while staying resolutely silent, how do I learn to speak up? Social media has helped: I’ve made fandom friends on Twitter and Tumblr, aided by my pivot into writing about fan culture as a journalist. (I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t make my story fairly unusual amongst fanfic lurkers, but still!) I’ve floated little pieces of my personal fannishness out into the world. Now, people know what I ship, what characters I relate to, even some of the stories I love, as I shyly recommend the stuff that’s left me flailing or smacking the couch in glee or saying aloud to literally no one, “This is so good,” as I read it.

My natural instinct remains to lurk. I pepper the web with little hearts and favourites and kudos, but I rarely go in deep on public forums about the things I really love. It’s a curious position for someone who writes and talks a lot about fan culture: I am the perpetual observer, and the incredibly reluctant participant. But as the web has evolved, so have I: I’m inching closer to participatory culture, not just creating, but sharing what I create. And I’ve got thousands of words of new fanfiction, sitting in a folder in my desktop. Perhaps it’s time to finally speak up.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.