Bill Mackowski in his studio in Maine, surrounded by his creations made from ash. Photo by Peter Dembski
THE LOSS OF ASH IS FELT BEYOND THE FOREST
With snow on the ground in mid-March, trees in Connecticut’s Naugatuck State Forest presented a dense network of bare branches against a sky the color of faded denim. But I didn’t need leaves to see that the largest tree in sight was dead. Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection forester Jerry Milne told me that fewer than two years ago this grand white ash was alive and vibrant. Now bark was sloughing off the trunk, revealing an elaborate and deadly serpentine calligraphy of tunnels left by the emerald ash borer (EAB).
This metallic-green invasive insect, about the size of a fingernail, has killed tens of millions of trees since its discovery in Michigan in 2002. It’s moving east, and the full brunt of the scourge is now being felt in much of New York and New England. Along streets and in the woods, lush canopies of delicate, pinnately compound leaves are thinning, and blond patches are appearing on infected trunks where woodpeckers have scraped off outer flakes of bark in their hunt for EAB larvae and pupae. In some places, dead, skeletal trees are literally falling apart, creating roadside and pedestrian hazards that strain local tree-maintenance budgets.
Much has been written about the ecological consequences of the species’ disappearance. But the cultural loss, and the utilitarian loss, will also be devastating.
“Ash is one of the greatest gifts with which nature has endowed man in the temperate regions of the planet over the course of human history,” wrote British journalist Robert Penn, whose 2015 book The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees describes the myriad objects, from spoons to tables, that he crafted from a single mature ash. While ash may not have the pizazz of maple or cherry, it may be used in more iconic products than any other tree. Ash lumber is used in furniture, flooring, axe and shovel handles, shelving, and paneling. White ash has long been prized for snowshoes, toboggans, and baseball bats, as well as canoe gunwales, thwarts, and paddles. Black ash (called brown ash in Maine) is used to make baskets of all kinds – from packbaskets to fishing creels. Substitute materials for ash wood may be found, and clever minds and skilled hands may discover workarounds to attain the properties that alternative materials lack, but in many cases, there will never be such a perfect marriage of natural materials to finished products.
NEW WOOD FOR THE BOYS OF SUMMER
No sound in sports so succinctly or beautifully conveys the spirit of a game as “the crack of the bat” when a hitter connects with a pitched baseball. For generations, that sound resonated from ash bats. Diamond heroes like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron all swung ash lumber.
But ash doesn’t command the same market share it once did – a decline that predates the emerald ash borer. Just about the time that EAB was making its first appearance in the US, maple bats were gaining popularity, and today, they have all but displaced ash bats among professionals. Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter was the first to swing a maple bat in the Majors in 1997, though they really took off after San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds used maple to hit a record 73 home runs in the 2001 season. Hard maple has a tight grain structure that doesn’t flex like ash, and proponents say the hardness transfers more energy to the ball, causing it to jump off the bat with higher velocity and greater distance. These claims have not been backed up by science, but regardless, ash has been abandoned by many pro ballplayers.
Until about 15 years ago, Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the legendary Louisville Slugger, produced bats only from ash, according to Brian Boltz, general manager of Larimer and Norton, the company’s forest products subsidiary. Now, roughly 80 percent of Major League bats are maple. Still, about 70 percent of Hillerich & Bradsby’s total bat production remains in lower-cost ash, primarily to satisfy the minor league and amateur markets. The price of ash is rising as it becomes increasingly scarce, and within two to three years, supply will not meet demand, said Boltz. The company is now experimenting with poplar, yellow birch, and soft maple as substitute materials.
As for the “crack of the bat” sound, some say maple has a crisper, louder pop. Kyle Murphy, wood bat products manager for sporting goods giant Rawlings and a former minor leaguer, isn’t sure that maple rings louder. For players, he said, it’s feel that matters, and they like maple’s “harder feel” on contact with the ball. Ash may be significant in baseball history and admired for its beautiful grain, acknowledged Seth Cramer, CEO of Ohio-based Phoenix Bats, but it probably won’t be missed much in the long run.
THE FREEDOM TO ROAM
Snowshoes give the freedom to roam when snow lies deep. The tubular aluminum-and-neoprene models introduced in the 1980s are now dominant; they’re particularly effective in icy, steep terrain. But traditional hand-woven, steam-bent, ash-framed shoes cannot be beaten for traversing deep powder. They are quiet, and unlike their metal counterparts with solid decks, they do not accumulate ice and snow. Made in various shapes with alluring names like “bear paw” and “beavertail” that suggest their design, traditional snowshoes are beautiful, practical works of art.
Founded in 1956 and located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Iverson Outdoors is a major producer of wood snowshoes, including those sold by Maine-based outfitter L.L.Bean. The company has yet to have a problem obtaining white ash, but within a few years, the supply will run out. Alternatives such as cherry and yellow birch are under consideration. Cherry has an attractive rosy tint and bends reasonably well, but it’s heavier and more expensive than white ash, according to Iverson’s co-owner and vice president Jim Baker. “The ash snowshoe goes back millennia,” he said wistfully, “and one of the main reasons we offer our products is in keeping with this tradition. Something significant will be lost.”
In business for nearly a quarter-century, Bill Novacek of Coos Canoe and Snowshoe in Lancaster, New Hampshire, is a self-taught artisan who joyfully proclaimed that he’s still learning.
“I love working with wood and other natural materials,” he told me. His snowshoes are made solely of steam-bent ash, and he weaves them with rawhide largely obtained from local hunters and farmers. Novacek admires ash for its strength and flexibility, but he’s ecstatic about its rich and well-defined grain. In canoes, he typically uses it for gunwales, thwarts, seats, and stems. There are substitutes like cherry or spruce, but nothing does everything that ash can. EAB is not yet affecting his supply chain, so getting material hasn’t been a problem, but sadly, he knows that the insect casts an ominous shadow on the future of his craft.
Bill Mackowski, a former bush pilot in northern Canada, learned snowshoe-making over 25 years ago. It was “a truly life-altering opportunity,” he said. First mentored by a self-taught craftsman, Mackowski then visited as many Native American snowshoe-makers as he could while accumulating a collection of almost 200 pairs, many now on loan to museums and universities. They are “works of art,” he proclaimed.
Doing business as Mackowski Traditionals in Milford, Maine, he makes snowshoes in many styles, using both ash and the birch favored by peoples in the north where ash doesn’t grow. With contagious enthusiasm, he described ash as a wood of a hundred uses, admiring its sturdiness, strength, pliability, and beauty.
Mackowski also handcrafts baskets and creels from black ash, often for upscale outdoor retailer Orvis. The wood is “the most unique and durable of all natural or manmade materials,” he rhapsodized. “Nothing can compare with its texture, workability, and visual beauty. Even its smell has an unusual and inspiring quality.” With ash on the way out, birch, maple, oak, and tamarack are becoming popular alternative materials.
UTILITY AND BEAUTY
Many basketmakers speak of black ash with reverence, as though it has spiritual qualities. Unlike the widely distributed white ash, black ash grows in swampy pockets, mysterious-feeling places where most people don’t go.
Walking into a black ash swamp is like entering a separate room within a forest. Hummocky ground dotted with dark pockets of standing water and mounds of luxuriant moss exudes a singular, primal atmosphere. There’s a slight scent of muck and rotting leaves that’s rich and sweet. Visitors must climb over fallen trees and dance around pockets of water. Black ash trunks stand out among other species because of their gray, flaky, sometimes corky bark tattooed with blackish-green lichen. Many trees look stunted and grow at odd angles. It’s easy to become awestruck, lose track of time, and stay longer than anticipated.
Black ash is perfect for basketmaking. It can be cut into long ribbons as thin and flexible as silk and as tough as metal. This remarkable quality occurs because the spring portion of a black ash’s annual growth rings contain large pores with lots of air pockets and little wood fiber between them, which allows the rings to be separated easily in a freshly cut tree. After debarking, a harvested log is pounded with a blunt instrument, and the loosened growth rings are removed in lengthy strips. These strips can be split into even thinner ones. Scraped smooth, they are then ready for weaving.
Native Americans have woven black-ash baskets for thousands of years. Originally used for gathering and transporting items, traditional potato baskets and backpack baskets have largely yielded to those designed as works of art. Loss of the tree is not just personal – it’s cultural. “To most people,” wrote Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and Potawatomi woman, “an invasive species represents losses in a landscape, empty spaces to be filled by something else. To those who carry the responsibility of an ancient relationship, the empty niche means empty hands and a hole in the collective heart.”
Black ash’s unique qualities have attracted a wide circle of basketmakers beyond Native American communities. Influenced by utilitarian Shaker and traditional New England styles, award-winning basketmaker JoAnn Catsos has increasingly been drawn to smaller, more intricate forms during her 30-year career. Her baskets are in private and public collections, including the Smithsonian’s. Working from home on a quiet street in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, she smiled broadly and talked with sheer delight about her craft. Baskets adorned shelves and nooks in every room of the house. They hung from ceilings, lamps, and other objects. Among the beautiful, complexly woven, and often colorful pieces in her workshop was a poster about EAB.
The marauding insect hasn’t reached their Berkshire hamlet yet, JoAnn’s husband Steve explained, but it won’t be long. He’ll be among the first to know since he harvests trees nearby. “There’s more black ash out there than you’d think, but most people don’t walk through swamps in ankle-deep water,” he laughed, running a hand through his close-cropped gray beard. Like many craftsmen, he’s always on the lookout for trees.
Steve led us into his shop, which was once the garage. Surrounded by tools, wooden molds, and coils of material ready to be worked, JoAnn enthusiastically described weaving as meditative – a time to think and let the mind wander. Steve demonstrated a device he designed for more easily creating thin strips. Then, with a melancholy look, JoAnn told me that nothing can replace the flexibility, beauty, and strength of black ash. “I’ll find something else to weave,” she said, “but it won’t be the same.”
Despite the rise of synthetic materials and mass production, the fate of ash trees reminds us that our connection to nature is deeper than we might recognize – that some things cannot be replaced; that something is always lost with substitutes. Ash baseball bats may go the way of ash tennis rackets because other materials perform more desirably, but it’s not merely nostalgic to miss the beautiful and unique qualities of the original. In some cases, as with baskets and snowshoes, performance and beauty are uniquely entwined, and nothing is better.
Seed banks and the release of EAB predators by scientists each provide some hope for the survival of ash – or at least for a future revival. Stockpiling logs may allow certain crafts to continue a while longer. But even as we lose living specimens, we must cherish the objects created from them. Perhaps the ingenuity and craftsmanship of such things will inspire the hard work ahead. Twentieth-century naturalist Donald C. Peattie maintained that among the trees of our region, “white ash is Nature’s last word.” It’ll take science that’s not yet perfected, and more than a bit of hope, to avoid yet another sylvan dead language.
David K. Leff is an essayist, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, the author of 10 books, and a former deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. In 2016, the National Park Service appointed him to a year-long tenure as poet-in-residence for the New England National Scenic Trail.