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The Way I See It: Hard Lessons in Being a Steward of the Earth

According to a recent article in The New York Times, I am sitting on a goldmine, but it’s a sad discovery. I have a stash of ash splints for basket making carefully stored in my barn. I haven’t made a basket in a decade, but I loved doing it when I did and hope to return to it. When I do, I will have to tell the recipients of my basket gifts, humble though the baskets may be, that theirs is a priceless relic from the past. Very simply, the ash borer has devastated the craft of basket making across the country.

There is so much human tragedy in the world today that it’s hard to look at the loss of ash trees as the tragedy it is. First and foremost, the decimation of the ash tree population is a blow to the biodiversity that the earth so desperately needs. But the loss also means the loss of traditions. People have been making baskets for at least 12,000 years. In Vermont, the Abenaki and Algonquin peoples have a long tradition of making baskets from ash, which delivers the requisite strength, predictable grain, and pliability. No other tree offers similar qualities. The loss of ash supplies will end those precious traditions and curtail the work of modern Yankee crafts people who have pushed basket making to different heights.

The culprit of this tragedy is the emerald ash borer, an insect thought to have been introduced from China in 2002. Its larvae burrow into the flesh of ash trees and prevent nutrients and water from ascending to the crown. In the end, the tree starves and dies of thirst. Two summers ago, not 25 yards from our camp, we wondered about a blue box floating high up in a tree until someone told us that we were looking at an ash tree and a device attached to monitor ash borer activity. Today that tree is dying and so are hundreds of millions of ash trees across the country. 

This is not the first time non-native invasive species have affected me personally. After all, 48 years ago I bought a house on Elm Street in Montpelier. Already every one of those splendid, arching trees that had covered my street with a bower of green had succumbed to Dutch elm disease. More recently, my family has noted the absence of bats, both here at home and at our camp. Once upon a time, we sat outside in the summertime dark watching bats swoop through the air like aerialists. No more. White-nose syndrome fungus, an invasive species thought to have entered the United States sometime around 2006, has invaded the caves of bats, killing them by the millions. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve unwittingly played a part in the invasive species problem myself. Forty-five years ago I ordered a honeysuckle hedge from Burpee’s, a popular mail-order plant company. The dozen plants arrived in a jiffy bag, and I was instructed to plant the foot-tall saplings six inches deep. When I was done, I had a dozen sticks in the ground the diameter of a pencil. But the twigs grew quickly, very quickly, and soon we had a respectable hedge. In the years after that, however, the honeysuckle plants grew wild and unruly until eventually we dug them all up and planted lilacs. In the intervening years I had learned that honeysuckle was a non-native invasive plant that would take over its environment. Ours certainly did. 

The tall Norway maple that towers over our front yard is another invasive. It is weak, brittle, and short-lived, unlike native maple species. Ironically, the tree was a gift from the city of Montpelier 40 years ago when the city was trying to repopulate the streets with green corridors. We were only too happy to be recipients of the city’s largess. But we are wiser now. Today I know sugar maple trees with healthy, thick muscular trunks that are more than 100 years old. Our tree is already falling apart, literally, and will need to be taken down, possibly as early as this coming summer. What a waste. If we had known better, we could have had a healthy, relatively young tree adorning our front yard for decades to come. 

Scientists have studied isolated elm trees that survived the blight, hoping to find the secret to their survival in order to reestablish the continent’s elms. Perhaps they will find ash trees that have similarly prevailed against the odds and discover ways to propagate them. For the time being, I will consider the ash splints in my barn a treasure, a natural resource now severely threatened that once played a part in a tradition also in danger of being lost. And I’ve learned to be a better steward of the earth.