“It’s like loving someone with a terminal disease,” she said, her long, thin fingers brushing the tree’s rivulet bark. Our daughter’s in a front pack on her chest, tiny fingers mimicking her mother’s. We were up on the mountain showing our 14-month-old a fairytale ash tree – 50 inches at breast height – a tree that’s probably not going to exist too much longer. Notice how soft the last part of that sentence sounds. We’re soft with our children and soft with ourselves when it comes to wrapping our minds around this tragedy. I might have written: We were showing our 14-month-old daughter a fairytale ash tree that’s going to be dead soon.
“But it’s a whole race we’re losing,” I said. “It’s more like ecological genocide.”
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The news of the emerald ash borer’s discovery in Vermont broke on February 27, and my inbox started filling up with messages. First came the press release from the Agency of Natural Resources, followed by notes from friends and colleagues, then news pieces that reported the scoop. “It is with a heavy heart that I send this email,” wrote one county forester.
We’d known this was coming for years. Vermont’s been an island in the midst of an outbreak, so it’s surprising that we held out for as long as we did. And yet it still came as a shock, as did the location: ground zero is about 14 miles from where Northern Woodlands was born and raised. I was surprised, too, by how much the news affected me. I’ve been involved in either writing or editing stories about this invasive bug for about 15 years, and yet I still lost my breath a bit when I got the first email.
A few weeks after the news broke I attended a forest health meeting in Woodstock. A five-person panel sat on a stage and laid out different facets of the invasion. They said there will be a quarantine area where the movement of ash wood will be regulated, though as of me writing this the scope of it has not been decided. More than 99 percent of ash trees will die. If you’ve got mature ash and the market is decent, now’s the time to harvest, but it’s an ecologically destructive idea to cut everything. The forest needs to maintain some ash, ideally in the 6- to 10-inch dbh range, so there’s a seed source up until the eve of destruction. Once the overstory is eliminated, those seeds, and the few odd trees that for whatever reason persevere, will be the future. The people on the panel talked a bit about biocontrol efforts, but not optimistically. Apparently the parasitoid wasps that are being released in some states have ovipositors that are too short to get through thick ash bark; thus whatever limited good they might do will only benefit the “aftermath forest.” That was the shred of hope being offered – that once the large trees are all dead, and the first wave of the beetles crashes, maybe biocontrol agents could impose some sort of equilibrium that will allow the surviving seedlings some sort of existence.
I felt grateful that there were good people working on this and that Vermont has benefited from the lessons learned in 31 other states and 3 Canadian provinces. And yet the whole exercise felt a little surreal. The presentation began with a thank you to funding sources and partners, delivered in the same bureaucratic/ academic vernacular that a forester might use to begin a presentation on modified shelterwood systems. There were coffee and confections. You might say there was a tinge of excitement in the room full of forest professionals; it felt a little like what I’d imagine young soldiers might feel on the eve of their first battle; young soldiers who know, of course, that in the abstract war is hell, but they’ve been hearing war stories their whole lives, and envisioning and training for this moment, and now it’s almost here.
I was talking to someone about the disconnect between the loss I felt when the news broke and the detached intellectual curiosity I was feeling during the meeting, and the person said something to the effect of: “We can’t be the 12-year-old who cries about stuff going extinct our whole lives.” That’s harsh but fair. If we’ve matured properly, we should be resilient enough to embrace and participate in the churn of modern life even when things get tough and ugly. And thinking people are right to distrust myopic environmental sentimentality. But we’re not talking about losing a diseased Norway maple in a park here; we’re about to lose an entire genus. I’m finding that I have no emotional vocabulary for this sort of grief.
When I left the meeting the truck radio was reporting on the day’s political churn. The CEO of Facebook was testifying on Capitol Hill; that company’s institutional mantra was “move fast and break things,” and it all went well for them until their platform started being used to break the democratic institutions that have held the world together since WWII. Move fast and break things – that’s what the titans of industry thought as they shuttled plant and animal material around the globe as if it were zinc and ore. Move fast and break things, we inwardly scream at the people who have any power to influence the state’s response to the insect (then maybe think better of it). When I got home and entered notes from the meeting into a computer I felt small and powerless. I began to picture this outbreak and the response like oscillations on a wind map – a butterfly flapping its wings, and a storm gathering, and the jet stream curling, just like a piece of firewood moving, and a forest falling, and an environmental non-profit rising to regurgitate marching orders and then settling back down again until the next stimulus. In reading what I just wrote, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the purest thing in the whole section is the 12-year-old’s tears.
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I began to wonder if anything had been written specifically about grieving this event, and so I searched the Internet and came upon a story that ran in the Ashland (Minnesota) Daily Press by Rick Olivo. It’s about a black ash basket-maker named April Stone who made a “burial basket” out of black ash as a symbolic act of mourning. “It is something that appears to be unprecedented in the history of art: an entire class of artistry that is threatened by a loss of media,” Olivo writes. “Anyone who has ever seen the gigantic quarries of Carrera, Italy, knows that the world will never run out of marble...But one day in the not too-distant future, ash trees might be a thing of the past.”
“I can’t pass along how to make these baskets,” said the artist. And this is not just her burden to bear. We can’t pass along the knowledge that ash buds are perhaps the best loved winter deer food. We can’t pass along that ash will burn green if you need emergency firewood. We can’t pass along that shade of autumn purple – part wine, part mauve, part plum – how will we tell our grandkids about that? We can’t pass along the feel of that amber, long-fibered wood that every school kid baseball player knows intimately; the kind of bat that won’t shatter and impale people like maple will.
When we hunt morels on this mountain we don’t wander slowly about with downcast eyes like a kid hunting nightcrawlers or an old man looking for his hearing aid. No, we move fast, covering miles. And we spend most of our time looking up. That’s how we fill baskets – by looking up to see the holes in the canopy where ash trees, which takes their sweet time unfurling their leaves, signal to us. If you could peer down on the scene from above you’d see little halos of sunlight illuminating the treasure.
I emailed Philip Tedeschi, a member of a mushroom club in Michigan, and asked him how the morel hunting is in areas where the ash is decimated. “Our club holds an annual morel hunt up north every year,” he wrote. “We no longer hunt for the white or yellow morels when we go up because there aren't any . . . The days of finding thousands of whites around the ash are gone.”
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Aldo Leopold penned this oft-quoted passage in reaction to flood control efforts that straightened rivers in the 1940s, and yet he may as well have been talking about the invasive plants and pests that we’ve been obliviously introducing and then spreading around for the last century:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
The phrase “be the doctor” implies some sort of action, but it seems to me that as in medicine, the ecologist’s role here is limited. We can all put Don’t Move Firewood bumper stickers on our pickups, but in the end, what good is it really doing?
I wrote to a doctor and asked how she deals with hopeless scenarios when practicing medicine. How does she keep from hardening her shell with patients who don’t want to be told to change their unhealthy lifestyle?
“Do I sound callous to say I grieve for the forest more than my patients, and even more for my children who already can’t wake to the bird song of my childhood?,” she wrote back. “I have now cared for some people for 20 years and watched what I predicted slowly happen. Empathy comes from seeing their humanity. The analogy would be better if it were a child who were ill and their parents did not want to see it. Through this lens the ash are more like a young person struck down by metastatic melanoma that could have been caught early. In that case it’s a shell, or perpetually and futilely rage against the storm. I have now written and erased three times. I don’t know. But I am glad you are there as it does feel lonely sometimes.”
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We leave the fairytale ash and start back to camp along a skid trail. Our daughter is toddling now, and so she walks between us, holding one of each of our hands.
Say it takes five years for the insect to get to these woods; she would be six then. We could sketch the tree bark with charcoal and heavy paper, frame it and hang it in her room. At the meeting the experts said it takes three years for the symptoms to show up; in years four and five trees start to die; in years seven, eight, nine, the insects peak and mortality nears 100 percent. In this scenario she’d be 15, just starting high school. My father tells stories about when he was that age and all the elms died; how he and my grandfather would take a two-man crosscut and a maul and wedges and buck and split up the dead trees in the pasture for sugaring wood. (I feel a moment of levity here, thinking that with ash instead of elm my daughter will certainly get the better end of the wood-splitting deal.)
But then the ash would be gone. If my daughter grew up to have a child in her 20s or 30s, that child would not know this tree, or if she did would know it in the same way we know American chestnut – as a sapling with a death sentence, or a ghost from history books, or as a hybrid novelty seedling you buy from the American Ash Foundation to plant in your yard, all proceeds going to ash research and the idea that in a millennium the tree might find a niche in the forest again.
“What are you writing your editorial about?” her mom asks as we walk. And I say, “Something about EAB, but I’m having trouble finding the right words.” She asks why and I tell her that I feel like I’m supposed to write something practical and unemotional, but that I just can’t do it. Chestnut. Elm. Butternut. Beech. Hemlock. The maples around Worcester. Ash. The list of trees that global trade has destroyed or is in the process of destroying goes on and on and will continue to get longer. We do this to ourselves, and yet we’re so numb to it by now that it’s just another day at the office.
I say that I want to write something that’s angry, or at least sad; I want to mark this tragedy for what it is. That the only reaction that makes any sense to me is heartbreak. But I can’t do it, professionally, because there’s no resolution in that. There’s no hope. I would be like a preacher at a funeral who just stoked and wallowed in the mourning family’s grief.
“I think maybe it’s enough to give ourselves permission to grieve,” she says. “I think the point could be, simply, that if we let ourselves feel this we’ll be better for it.”