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.

Photo: Getty
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Serebrennikov's arrest is another step in the erosion of Russia's cultural freedom

The detained director is widely known for challenging more conservative forms of theatre.

“The play opens amid scenery which has already become, it seems, painfully familiar: a room with official furniture and a cage, to which they lead a man in handcuffs.” Thus reads a RIA Novosti review of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots in Moscow in 2013.

On Wednesday, it was the 47-year-old Kirill Serebrennikov who was led to the cage in handcuffs. Crowds gathered outside chanting “Kirill, Kirill” and “freedom” as he took the stand in a Moscow courtroom after being detained on suspicion of embezzling 68 million roubles (£900,000) of government funds, according to reporters at the scene.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest until 19 October awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail. The investigation alleged that house arrest was necessary as Serebrennikov has a Latvian residence permit and real estate abroad. However, authorities had already confiscated his passport at the beginning of August, the director said. Travel abroad would be impossible.

The investigation into Serebrennikov reflects the incremental – yet cumulatively extremely effective –  erosion of freedom of expression that has pervaded Russian cultural politics in recent years. Russia’s legal system implicates vast swathes of its residents, and some have suggested that the processes involved in securing funding for the theatre are near-impossible to navigate.

“The laws governing Russian theater financing are so arcane and contradictory that even a mathematical genius could not run a theater and abide by the law,” theatre critic John Freedman wrote in The Moscow Times in June, as the case started to develop. The investigation is also an example to others who continue to challenge the status quo; locals have spoken of “an atmosphere of fear and hysteria” among (what’s left of) the country’s leading liberal cultural figures.

Serebrennikov was initially remanded on Tuesday by the Russian Investigative Committee’s special investigations department. He has himself previously been critical of artistic censorship and called the accusations against him “absurd”. Supporters are now beginning to draw parallels with Stalinist-era crackdowns.

“Director Meyerhold was not arrested by the NKVD, but by Stalin. Director Serebrennikov was not arrested by the Investigative Committee, he was arrested by Putin,” renowned author Boris Akunin wrote in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Russia has moved into a new state of existence with new rules.”

Other key cultural figures have stood by Serebrennikov to support freedom of expression and grimly reflect on present-day realities. Writer and director Viktor Shenderovich told television station Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain) that even global fame cannot “save you from the interests of a repressive state if it decides that it is in its interests to put you on the ground face down.”

Thousands of people signed a petition demanding his liberation. “Artists should have the right to express their opinion freely. That is guaranteed by our country’s Constitution,” the letter signed by more than 14,300 people as of midday on Wednesday said.

The case, in theory, revolves around funding awarded to a theatre project known as Platform between 2011 and 2014. Three other former colleagues of the director were also detained in connection with the case. However, Serebrennikov’s supporters believe there is more to the story.

Serebrennikov is widely known in Russia for challenging more conservative forms of theatre. He is the head of the Gogol Centre – one of Russia’s more avant-garde institutions. It was here that The Idiots was staged. His originality and talent is widely hailed on the Moscow theatre scene.

At the beginning of July, Serebrennikov’s staging of a ballet exploring the life and work of gay or bisexual ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed. The ballet, according to the New York Times, explored homosexuality in Nureyev’s art and his battle with AIDS, which killed him in 1993.

In a subsequent press conference, the Bolshoi confirmed the postponement of the ballet, with the theatre’s director general Vladimir Urin saying “the ballet was not good” and that he and others were “very depressed” by what they saw. Urin did not state that the homosexual themes played any part in the decisio,n.

On 7 August, Serebrennikov told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that his passport had been seized by authorities. At the same time, he said Urin had contacted him to say that Nureyev would be shown in December this year.