I don’t have notes, and I don’t recall specific dates or even years. Anyway, as far as I recall, here is the story: Summer, 1970. Clinton, Iowa. My family lived in a “new” house (new to us, we had moved three year before from a rental on Third Avenue South) on Seventh Avenue. The street was kind of pretty—a wide expanse of pavement, punctuated by beautiful old shade trees.
Many of those trees were elms. And that summer, the elms came down.
I was 12, if I have the right year, and the end of the elms was a sad time, but more for my parents, I think, than for me. I was still young enough that the sound of a chainsaw was fascinating, and the crash of the branches didn’t seem particularly terrible.
But, it was a tragedy. It took decades for those elms to slowly accumulate such height and majesty, only to have a fungus end it all.
It was also a fungus early in the 20th century that killed off the American chestnut tree.
Now, we’re facing yet another tree catastrophe. The long-dreaded emerald ash borer, a tiny green beetle that can fit on a penny, has been found in Mechanicsville, a town around 20 miles away, as the ash borer flies.
It will mean the end of the ashes as we know them, and I don’t feel fine. Ashes are not my favorite tree, but I do like them. After the men came in 1970 and cut up our elms and carted the carbon carnage away, my father planted several trees in our yard. For some reason, the redbuds in the north front yard never thrived, which is a pity, since the redbud is such a pretty native tree.
On the other hand, the volunteer maples that my dad dug out of our hedge grew like weeds. And by the vegetable garden in back, he planted a tall and pretty tree that also thrived—an ash.
I don’t know now, years later, if that ash still stands. If it does, it will not for long.
A little green devil is on its way.
Today, I have two very pretty, mature ash trees in my yard—giant, full-sized plants that were decades in the making, but which will be at the end of their lives soon. I am at least fortunate that both ash trees reside between the sidewalk and the street, because in Cedar Rapids, that means the city forestry department will eventually bring out the men with the saws to cart the carcasses away.
I’ll miss those ash trees. As a middle aged man, I finally understand a bit why my mother and father mildly mourned the passing of the elms. I’m 55, far older than any animal I might encounter, since I don’t have regular dealings with sea turtles. I don’t mind being a long-lived mammal, but I am acutely aware of my mortal nature, and I can respect trees for their beauty and shade and also because they are one of the few living things around me that has the capacity to outlive me, to possibly even be a living legacy of mine to future generations.
Years ago, possibly when or several years before our house was built, someone planted those ash trees by the street. But for the borer, they could have continued to increase in size and majesty and could have graced our street for many more decades.
They won’t. That’s a shame.
So I pause, on this cooling, wet Friday afternoon, to recall the trees that are still here if only for now. Sadly, tomorrow ashes you will be gone.
Once there were chestnuts. After that, there were elms. Now, but only now, there are ashes.
May one or more of the oaks or maples or the hawthorn or the tulip or the sweet gum that I have planted be there in the future after my time has expired. And I hope whatever replaces the ashes in front of my yard will also thrive for future generations.