Requiem for an Ash

The front moves and defenses are built, but there’s no doubt which way the war is going, and little doubt what is emerging the victor: a little green bug.

Agrilus planipennis, the emerald ash borer, has harangued and harassed North American forests since the late 1990s, and its journey across Wisconsin continues, county by county, city by city, tree by tree. But this is not its story.

Birthed from the bottomlands and disturbed areas of eastern America, green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is one of the most widespread and common trees on the continent. Though without oaken grandeur or the sweet gifts of the maple, green ash is a pioneer species and embodies that pioneer ideal to which we all should strive: pluck, or resolution in the face of difficulty.

Along soaked streambanks or abandoned fields, green ash has found a way to survive and thrive. Its fortitude is what drafted it out of the riverine woodlands and into our boulevards and urban parks. With remarkable resilience, it could survive the pollution, the soil compaction, the small spaces between concrete. It was deemed one of the worthy successors to the American elm, a humbled species that still haunts the memories of urban dwellers. Green ash moored itself along the streets, standing silent guard over our communities. But what happens when the immoveable object meets the unstoppable force?

Though not as common in town, many would say white ash (Fraxinus americana) has a higher pedigree, accompanying sugar maple and basswood in upland habitat.  One of the most useful woods in American history, white ash is the tree of play, being the origin of thousands of baseball bats, tennis rackets, hockey sticks and guitars.

Both ashes, and another in Wisconsin, seem doomed. But is it really the bug’s fault? After all, it was just an unwitting passenger on one heck of a ride from China to the New World. It might just be the messenger in a conflict of our species against others, a conflict which makes victims of our sylvan stewards.

The genus will long be remembered, even if lost from our streets and our forests. For with every crack of the bat on a hot summer day, or pluck of a guitar string during a coffee shop concert, we hear notes from a tree that grew into our culture, and thus, our souls.


By Dan Buckler, Urban Forestry Assessment Outreach Specialist

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