Dark Mountain’s Issue 19, Requiem, was devoted to our relationship with death, and its associated emotions and rituals. I return to Shaun Pett’s essay ‘Heartwood’ partly because of the beauty of its language and partly because the childhood woods he revisits as an adult are not far from where I grew up in Ontario. ‘I am who I am partly because of this forest,’ he tells us. I know exactly what he means. These forests, however, are dying: the beetle borer is decimating the ash trees, but Pett does not look away. He heads into the woods with pencil and paper to make graphite rubbings of the rivulets showing the beetles’ progress along the bark. He wants to find order in the destruction. What he comes to see, however, is that the patterns are ‘artefacts of hunger’ – our hunger as much as the beetle’s. The ash tree is heading towards the status of ‘functionally extinct’ and with its death comes the loss of myths and medicine that have emanated from this powerful tree for centuries. ‘Heartwood’ is as close as I can get to listening to these ash trees – the brothers and sisters of those very trees that populated my childhood home and whose language I regret not learning fluently. (JP)
Spring is arriving, its rhythms both clock and calendar. I can see through the forest, which, in its near nakedness, appears as geometry. Perpendicular trunks reach for the sky, branches stretch at angles for the sun. There are horizontals, too, fallen lines slanted down slopes, so many of them, like a game of pick up sticks.
These woods blur into the backyard of the house I grew up in, what has always been referred to as the white house at the end of the street. A stream separates the civilised grass and the tree fringe. I’m back here, 20 years after leaving, living once again with my parents during lockdown in Canada. When I was young I spent hours roaming alone and became familiar with this bush. I am who I am partly because of this forest. I don’t know what it taught me, but I know it marked me. In the fairy tales and myths that I read when young, forests were dark and mysterious, ‘liminal’ and ‘wayward’, as the author and storyteller Martin Shaw puts it, containing ‘the energy of twig and spell’. You entered at your peril, but if you did there was knowledge to be gained. Now a conservation area, the forest is hemmed in by suburbs, a popular escape for locals and their dogs. I come here often now, always hoping not to see anyone on these wanders.
One day, on the same route I’ve taken many times before, I notice a white wound ahead. I stop. Maybe it’s how the afternoon sun at my back illuminates the broken stump, the heartwood glowing. I walk to the ash – I know it’s an ash because it’s dead. Birds sing and wind whispers against branches. There’s a hole in the canopy, an absence. A storm must have snapped it. The trunk has broken a third of the way up, like bone, fresh and ragged. I can hear the crack. The rest of the tree lies on the ground. Dislodged sections of bark reveal carvings in the ash’s pale cambium, the mesmerising tunnels cut like meandering rivers into the sapwood. I trace smaller tunnels, frenzied like white noise, as they grow thicker and deeper, the turns getting wider until they dead-end, the point of metamorphosis and escape. Here the imago emerges, the image of death, a stunning metallic emerald. The borers love the colour green and, upon appearing, feast on the ash’s leaves, mate, and then lay their eggs in the ash’s bark. The patterns are beautiful, swirls of life and destruction.
The borers love the colour green and, upon appearing, feast on the ash’s leaves, mate, and then lay their eggs in the ash’s bark. The patterns are beautiful, swirls of life and destruction.
The emerald ash borer has been feasting here for years. Green ash and white ash, black and purple, it feeds on the whole Fraxinus genus, leaving its mark. I learn of the many pandemics, old and new, in these woods, of the furniture builders who imported European logs that contained Dutch Elm disease. Or those entrepreneurs in the United States who cultivated Japanese chestnut trees, which carried the blight Cryphonectria parasitica, a devastating fungus that felled four billion chestnut trees in the first half of the 20th century. (I’ve heard rumours of a chestnut that has survived in these woods, but have yet to find it.) And there’s Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, who brought over gypsy moths from Europe in 1869 in the hope of crossbreeding them to start a silk industry in Massachusetts. Of course, they escaped, defoliating oaks and others – I find a time-lapse map showing their ceaseless advance across the country over the last century.
Then, in the 1980s or ’90s, wooden shipping material arrived from China carrying the emerald ash borer, though it wasn’t discovered till 2002 in Detroit and Windsor. The insect spreads up to 80 kilometres per year. Millions of ash have died. Billions more will. The borer is also in Moscow, across Eastern Europe, and is heading west, though a fungus that causes dieback in European ash has already beaten them there. Scientists float the phrase ‘functionally extinct’.
We’ve tried quarantining regions without success. The borer spreads slowly on its own, but we’ve quickly dispersed it along well-travelled highways in shipments of firewood and saplings, new outbreaks beginning at rest stops and campgrounds. We try costly treatments, injecting insecticides year after year into each individual tree, but we don’t have the resources or willpower to do this at scale. Now we are breeding imported parasitic wasps with the plan that they’ll return balance. We remove infected trees, clear-cut whole neighbourhoods and stands that were planted with ash monocultures because they were quick growing and strong and useful – ash, the baseball bat in your hands, the electric guitar that hums your song; ash, the floor beneath your feet, the bed frame that holds your sleep; ash, the dresser that keeps your secrets. First Nations peoples weave baskets from the black ash and use the tree as medicine – the leaves and bark as a laxative, diuretic and a childbirth tonic for mothers. British newborns used to be given a teaspoon of ash sap.
There is no cure. After the initial attack a tree is asymptomatic for a few years. Once the signs of infection become visible, it is too late and the tree dies, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, either way a quick breath in its long life. Saplings perish before they reach seeding age. The mortality rate is over 99 per cent. Ash trees in China have defences against the borer, which attacks only the sick and dying. The leaves there have unpalatable tannins, unlike North American ash, and parasitic wasps prey on the borer, keeping the ecosystem in balance. These are the long-developed agreements of coexistence that we disrupted. Here, every ash I spot is dead or dying, collapsed and tattooed, or standing and bare. I start to approach loss, the word extinction, which has been more concept than reality for me.
In late April, we receive a notice in the mail of the annual gypsy moth spray to be administered from a helicopter. There’s still hope for the oak trees, it seems, unlike the ash. I wonder what is lost with the ash and I go seeking its many meanings and relationships with us. The ash is Yggdrasil, the Norse world tree, the centre of the universe, connecting worlds and realms. Viking men came from the tree and were known as Aescling, men of ash. For the Druids, it symbolised balance and connected inner and outer worlds, and was the key to truth. The Celts saw the ash as representing our interconnections and interdependencies, each and everything a part of and affecting the whole. These myths of the tree of life and world tree are some of our oldest and most universal tales. We have evolved with trees. The early medieval alphabet of Ogham, used to write early Irish, refers to letters as feda (trees, woods) and several of the letters have tree names – ‘o’ is ash. Various First Nations have the Tree of Peace that all gather under. With their trunks and crowns and branches, trees resemble us: bough comes from the Old English word for shoulder or arm, branch is from the Latin for footprint, and limb is used for both human and tree. Our word for ‘book’ comes from the beech tree. I think of this forest as a library; the trees can be read if we remember the ways we once related to them before we began treating them as quantified board feet and carbon sinks.
One day I bring paper and crayons into the forest with me and make rubbings of the borer’s trails. The sinuous lines appear as a white negative on the paper. These patterns are artefacts of hunger. I want to see order in these designs, like the symmetry of a city grid or the concentric circles of an open pit mine, to see the signs that this is a conscious plundering, that we aren’t alone. But I don’t. I see birth, survival, transformation and perpetuation. One day the borers will reach the last ash. And then what?
And as the forest shifts, grows around the loss, begins to forget the ash’s presence, other trees reach into the gap in the canopy looking for sun.
I read how the tree dies. I try to imagine its pain. The borer’s feeding disrupts the ash’s vascular system, girdling the flow of nutrients and water from crown to root like a cinched belt. Green leaves turn yellow, the crown thins and dies, the tree shoots out sprouts in a gasp for survival. But it’s too late. I read about the mycorrhizal network and try to picture the filaments of mycelium interconnecting every plant and tree, a path for sharing resources. I think of the warnings the ash sends out to others. The multitude of calls, a whole chorus of suffering. And the others, bracing for a threat that never arrives. And the help the ash had called for and the help that others perhaps give. And yet it is not enough. The ash withers and there’s silence at the end of the line. The pulses sent out get no reply. The frogs that feed on fallen ash leaves go hungry and wonder what else to eat. And as the forest shifts, grows around the loss, begins to forget the ash’s presence, other trees reach into the gap in the canopy looking for sun.
The ash wouldn’t be classified as an indicator species, I don’t think, one that reveals the overall health of an ecosystem. The borer is too cruelly specific. But the ash’s plight is indicative of the world we’ve made. A single fallen tree can stand for the whole, the whole fragility of all this. That the ash is vulnerable, that maybe all Fraxinus will disappear, and then the borer, too, creates that sediment of loss that links what was with what will be – loss is the ground we stand upon.
On another walk through the forest in late spring, I’m stopped in the path by a glint of green in the sunlight. Still and silent I wait for the flash again. There, a leaping arc through the air. I can’t believe it. I approach and come upon a borer in its emerald armour. One impulse is to kill it, to try to save whatever ash trees are left. But the act would be futile. The living ash are already dead. So I admire the borer’s beauty.
The borer leaps away and I continue on to visit my fallen ash, to seek the comfort Rilke speaks about in one of his elegies, ‘some tree on a slope, that we can see / again each day’. It is already decaying, fed upon by the seen and unseen, already turned to other purposes. I peel off a shard of heartwood, what I count as six years of growth from a span in the 1970s – a time before I was born, a time not long after the railway line was abandoned through this forest, a time when the ash grew strong and plentiful. I turn this wood-time in my fingers and I still don’t know what it’s teaching me. But I am trying to listen to its runic whisper, trying not to shy away from the loss. Above me there’s a gap of sky.
PLEASE NOTE: n addition to the PDF of Issue 19, there are also two slightly damaged hardback copies for sale in our online shop.