The dead, brown branches overhanging the fern garden were offensive to me—a blight distracting my vision of the woods beyond. Vowing to clear away this rude intrusion, I bushwhacked the twenty feet or so to the offender. I found it was part of a clump of three, two- to four-inch diameter, better-than-saplings. The group had light gray, craggy bark and long, branch whips of compound, saw-toothed leaves. The dead branches were too high for me to reach with the loppers. The bow saw was too big and the angle too wrong to make more than a halfway cut. I went for the axe. After an inordinate amount of swinging and impact, the tough four-incher came down. I nipped off a foot and a half twig and went upstairs for The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees.
It wasn’t a lot of things, that little tree and its fellow clumpers. I had a hard time believing what said it was: an American elm. I double checked with another source, which agreed. I looked it up on line for good measure. Yup. An American elm.
My father was very fond of trees. He used to talk about our fair hometown city of Troy, north of Dayton, in southwestern Ohio. He told me there were days in the early 20th century when the main streets were graced with American elm, all lost to the Dutch elm disease. “When that elm in our back yard is gone,” he said, “we’ll sell the house.” I was seventeen years old when that came to pass in 1967.
Finding the dying elm here was sad on a number of levels. This is the third breed of doomed trees that I have in my woods. One of the other, now nothing but a tall, dead stick, was an American chestnut. The third is the white ash, under threat from the emerald ash borer. All of these great trees are vulnerable to small beetles.
I thought the American elm had gone the same route as American chestnut. Great swaths of our landscape, rural and other, were decimated by the loss of huge tracts of graceful elm and sturdy chestnut. Dutch elm disease destroyed seventy-five percent of American elms from the 1950s to 1989. Without the Dutch elm disease, many of these trees would have survived for three hundred years.
I look at my woods as a microcosm of the planet. Heavily logged years before we moved here, the land is a crowded tangle of third or fourth growth, which, one tree expert told me, was a prescription for contact spread of contamination–ash to ash, chestnut to chestnut, elm to elm.
I would point out, however, that one graceful presentation of American elms has been rescued and preserved: those on the National Mall in Washington, DC. ( USA TODAY Smolinski, Paulina, August 19, 2019) Over the years, the National Park Service tree crews have worked pruning, sanitizing and injecting the elms in an aggressive battle with the local vector: Scolytus multistriatus, the smaller European elm bark beetle. From the first appearance of the disease in the 1950s to the 1970s, the fight has gone on. Seventy years later, the elms still stand.
Now, isn’t that interesting!