When the Last Tree Falls

“Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands…”

“O no, Dad, not again!”

That was my youthful reaction to my dad’s quoting of the one poem he remembered from eighth grade, the last grade he attended as a farm boy shortly before the First World War.  It was the beginning of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic, “The Village Blacksmith,” a poem I eventually memorized myself in a time of nostalgia long after my dad’s journey to Glory.  He’d quote it whenever any of us kids came home and recited poems we’d learned in school—and then he’d go on with, “You’re a poet and don’t know it; your feet show it—because they’re long fellows”: long feet being something that could be said about most of us boys of Dutch stock.

My nostalgia, however, was not just related to Dad’s quoting of the poem; it was also the result of knowing that the chestnut tree has been extirpated from America.  “Extirpated” [meaning, fittingly, "uprooted"] in the botanical sense means that no viable and self-propagating individuals remain and mature in a region where they were once common.  Specimens may still be preserved, however, typically as the result of lots of TLC and chemicals.  The chestnut is one of the trees that we’ve lost—the result of a chestnut blight fungus that, ironically, was already killing the majestic trees when my dad was learning the poem.  I still remember prints of paintings that illustrated Longfellow’s poem.  The fungus eventually killed some four billion trees [and resulting now in a new business endeavor: salvaging and selling chestnut timbers from old barns and homes].

Then in my day, the elm bark beetle, arrived in the Midwest about the time I started college (1960), and by the end of the decade all the towering Y-shaped elms that graced many of the streets in our area were dead.  A few specially cared for large specimens remain to remind us of the common beauty we lost.  [Since the disease does not kill the roots, short elms still grow to about thirty feet in fence rows before they die].

dead-and-dying-ash-trees1Now another pandemic tree disease has changed the landscape on our very own street.  The emerald ash borer has infested ash trees all over Michigan and is marching on to the north and west.  Today when I walk home, on my left will be at least a dozen dead ash trees and on my right will be a few living ones that were given treatment just in time to save them—at about $150 a tree per year.  However, the trees in the wild simply must succumb to the disease—once again leaving us only with specimens for recollection of more fruitful times.

These are the dying trees that have had an influence some way on me in my place.  In your place, you may be losing millions of hemlocks (Appalachia).  Further south, you’ve already lost your long-leaf pines.  In the Southwest, you’re losing your saguaro cactus.  In Colorado and California, your mountains are turning brown and being made susceptible to massive fires and then landslides because of the die-off of your lodge-pole pines.  All over the nation we are losing our dogwoods.  And all around the world this depressing story is repeated—with human exploitation adding to the decline caused by disease.

As a long-time lover of trees, I’m saddened by this.  The causes are multiple, mysterious, and mostly unmitigated in spite of our human efforts to save them.  This reality brings to mind a poem by C. S. Lewis, a fellow tree-hugger:

The Future of Forestry

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”
Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight—
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn’s
Collar, pallor in the face of birch girl.
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchful)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.

See you outdoors,

Dean