On four ash trees, gone before their time…

We lost four great old ash trees this month – or rather the skeletons of four old ash trees. They had been dead for a year or two, all of them, tall and stark and leafless, but it costs a lot to bring down a big tree, even a dead one, and I hate the sound of chainsaws, and I’m lazy and distracted, and I tend not to get around to things until it reaches the point where I’m thinking of the winter storm that might bring that tree down on that house and I’m forced to act.

The emerald ash borers got the trees, of course. As the bark began to peel away from the skeletal remains, you could see where the borers had traveled, their hungry, serpentine routes wandering the broad tree trunks like maps of the London Underground. In death, the great trees were much like skeletons, their branches bony fingers, their trunks femurs and spines, a Halloween display to spook the wee ones doing trick or treat on a windy October night.

Our trees won’t be frightening any children this year. They’re gone, along with hundreds, thousands, millions of others, victims of the Agrilus planipennis (which with my faulty, half-remembered high school Latin I would translate as “farmer with plenty of penis,”) a species of metallic wood-boring beetle native to East Asia, including China and the Russian Far East.

According to Natural Resources Canada, these green beetles haven’t been here long, less than 30 years. They apparently arrived on wood-packing materials, likely from China, in the early 1990s. In that time they have killed millions of trees in Canada in forested land and urban areas alike.

Most species of ash trees are vulnerable to the beetle, which has killed 99 percent of the trees in areas it infests – and since adults can fly, that will eventually be everywhere in this country. The ash borer is an arboreal version of the coronavirus, with an almost infinitely higher death rate and no vaccination in development.

Normal predators such as woodpeckers haven’t checked the spread of these beetles at all. The only way to kill them (other than burning down the tree) is to spray diluted insecticide on the ground around the tree and wait for the roots to pull it up and kill the bugs – but to do that, you have to detect the infestation in time.

I thought one of our trees was dying of old age; by the time I figured out what was killing it, the other three were dead or dying. Spring came and one tree had nothing left but a sprig or two of leaves and the others were leafless and dead, with some sort of fungus spreading over their bark.

All around us, similar trees were biting the dust. For the past three summers, the chorus of chainsaws has been considerably louder than the chorus of crickets. If I may quote myself from the novel Rose & Poe, “if death had to fart, it would sound like a chainsaw.” On many days, the racket has been loud enough that I have to close the house tightly, turn on the air conditioning and work with headphones on to drown out the noise if I want to write.

The result has been a changed suburban landscape. Most of the tallest trees in our neighborhood were ash trees, so that upper story of leafy green was largely gone this summer. Other trees will take the place of the ash trees, perhaps, but it will take a very long time for them to grow to those heights, and I’ll be gone by that time.

Our trees were brought down by an athletic young man and his helper, a genial alcoholic who left beer cans strewn around the yard. (Don’t worry – he stays rooted firmly to the ground while the athlete does the high-wire walking in the trees.)

Our wiry youngster managed the considerable feat of dropping all the trees without taking them down from the top. We have a long yard, and he was able to calculate the drop accurately to avoid fences, swimming pools, houses, dogs, gardens, air conditioning units and wandering home owners. When he had worked out the proper angle he would tie a long rope from the dead tree to one of the maples at the back and then the saw would roar to life, the rope would be pulled tight, and in a minute or two the grey skeleton of the old ash tree would fall with a great crash, and then hours would be consumed cutting it up and carting it away. 

What we have left are photographs of our son at four and five and six years old, tumbling with his cousins and his friends in piles of autumn leaves much taller than he was; of the tallest of the trees as it was, with some broken branches up high left behind by the ice storm of 1998, the last environmental catastrophe to damage so many trees. The yard is now more open and it feels more spacious but it also looks like a mouth after a row of teeth have been removed. 

While our trees were coming down, the sky was perpetually hazy from the smoke of wildfires more than 4,000 kilometres away. In California and Oregon, trees were dying by the thousands in much more spectacular fashion, some of them victims of the idiotic practice of setting off pyrotechnical displays in a drought area as part of gender reveal celebrations.

Everywhere we look, it seems, there are such reminders of the ways in which we are all connected, from life behind a mask to a lost canopy of tall trees to particulate matter in the atmosphere, borne there by the prevailing winds from the California fires. Big bugs hitch a ride on ships carrying wood across the Pacific, small bugs hitch a ride on airplanes carrying passengers from Wuhan. The result, in both cases, is deadly.

The smoke has passed. The sky is bluer now, but there are fewer birds roosting within plain sight. September will glide into October, I will be a year older, eventually the snow will fall and the chainsaws will be muffled for a time.

If I wish to contemplate life and death, the mistakes we have made and the mistakes we continue to make in managing our planet, I have several convenient stumps where the ash trees once grew, now resting places for an old man in autumn, looking for a place to sit and wonder where it all went.

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