My earliest memories are of coins of sunlight falling through feathery branches, from the time when my mother put me under trees for naps. The play of light through the shifting leaves and green-tinted air established my life-long ideal of beauty. Southern New Hampshire, where I now live, is an Appalachian forest made up of oak, hickory, ash and some maple and pine. The state is 84 per cent woodland after centuries of logging and farming. Once, chestnut was the dominant eastern tree, and the painful memory of its die-off in the last century still reverberates. After the chestnuts died, the wine-glass elms succumbed to invasive disease. The butternuts were overtaken by a fungal canker disease. Now an accursed green insect, the emerald ash borer, is demolishing the ash – a keystone tree in American forests.
The phrase “eco-grief” has been around for a few years and at first was applied to biologists, ecologists and others who worked in the natural world. Their feelings of anxiety, loss, pain, helplessness and frustration were seen as a work-related mental health problem. As the climate crisis rapidly intensifies, many people in diverse parts of the world are also swamped by these feelings. We are beginning to understand that eco-grief is not a side-effect that troubles a few, but an integral and inescapable part of these accelerating changes. Perhaps plants, gnats and frogs also sense impending difficulties.
Out of eight billion ash trees in the US, an estimated 25 million grow in this state – white ash, green ash and black ash. The mature white ash tree has a shape young schoolchildren can draw: a sturdy trunk and a puffy round top. The leaves are six evenly pinnate (feathery) leaflets with a seventh pointy leader. The fissured bark resembles rows of decorative braid on military uniforms, although a modest grey instead of glittery gold.
Humans value trees according to their usefulness to mankind. Ash is a very good timber tree and an excellent fuel source – one of the few that can be burned soon after it is cut. The wood is resilient – a shock absorber – and so is valued for canoe paddles and baseball bats. I have heard a rumour that baseball bat manufacturers are cramming their warehouses with ash, which is facing the looming threat of extinction, or at least severe rarity. Its antiseptic properties make it good for chopping boards. But the focus on human usefulness glosses over the reality that great numbers of birds and animals depend on ash to live. Because ash leaves are low in tannins they are a critical food source for frogs, whose tadpoles depend on the leaves that fall into hatching ponds and pools. As the ash trees die, the young frogs must eat red maple leaves, which contain more tannin, and that means fewer and smaller frogs.
In the 1990s the emerald ash borer arrived in the American Midwest from Asia, probably in packing material or pallets. The species was unnoticed until 2002, when someone discovered its handiwork in Detroit, Michigan. The insect has no natural enemies in the US, and it spreads like dry grass fire – tunnelling under the bark, eating through the tender underwood and laying prodigious numbers of eggs. Having countless nutrient-robbing tunnels through its flesh will starve a huge ash to death in only three to five years. Once the danger was recognised, cities and states enacted quarantines on moving the wood from felled trees, but the stringent rules were impossible to enforce and the horde continued to ravage American forests. The mortality rate is almost 100 per cent; there is no cure and the outlook is ash annihilation.
The emerald ash borer has now arrived in New Hampshire. Two weeks ago, a crew came to cut down a massive old ash tree at the end of my driveway – one of almost a dozen in the area. The men moved with deliberate slow grace, a kind of tree-felling ballet. The entire operation was pervaded by a sense of melancholy.
Ash trees in Europe and England have a different enemy: Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, a fungus disease known as “ash dieback”. When I first heard of this, my thoughts flew to David Nash’s living artwork Ash Dome, in north Wales, a circle of 22 trees planted in 1977 and trained to form a dome. Alas, the dome, too, is afflicted by the disease.
I recall the geographer Michael Williams’s 2002 book Deforesting the Earth, and his statement that a forest is “a living, ever-changing, dynamic entity that is affected directly by both short- and long-term environmental changes, particularly climate… Agriculture, domestication, and the control of fire have all been roughly coincident with the formation of the modern forests during the last 10,000 years, and their interaction is inseparable.” Even knowing the truth of this, I can’t help feeling an irrational surge of hope at learning of research into breeding emerald-borer-resistant ash trees, as well as a citizen-scientist search for ash trees that may have natural resistance. I, too, will be on the lookout for any so-called lingering ash – the ones that survive against all odds.
Annie Proulx is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain”. Her next book, “Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis”, will be published in June 2022