Ashes to Ashes

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

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Death is of course, a natural outcome of life, but the death of an entire species is more than sad, it is tragic and unrecoverable. In a few short years, the damage brought about by the rapid incursion of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer has had a devastating impact on the flatlands along the low end of our property, as Coshocton County joins the rest of Ohio, mourning  the apparent loss of yet another prominent tree species.

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Although not one of our property’s more prominent tree species, the swampy area across our northern face is dominated by small and bushy Alder trees, and dozens of tall Ash trees that grew up after farming ceased, some time in the mid 20th century.   Seemingly healthy just two years ago, signs of significant woodpecker activity were apparent last summer, suggesting an unusual insect infestation. In January, it was easy to see how pockmarked many of the ash trees had become, from the woodpeckers trying to extract the fat juicy larvae, and the worms boring back out of the tree to mate and infect the neighboring Ashes.

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The exterior of an infected ash tree fails to make clear the degree to which the borers crisscross the living wood layers immediately underneath the bark.  The effect is the same as girdling the tree, cutting off the flow of sap and nutrients to the tree’s canopy, which usually dies within a few years

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Although they appeared fully leafed out last year, the ash trees lining our township road now appear mostly dead, with only a few scraggly outbreaks of leafs in the crowns, and an almost poodlelike outbreak of leaves around the trunk and lower limbs, as the trees desperately try to spread a few leaves in the summer sun. The smaller ash trees in the interior, feet wet in vernal pools, have already died (camera right, above).  Only a couple of the ash trees seem to have a full canopy this summer (camera center shows an ash tree in front in lighter green, with a darker green hickory behind it, flanked by dead and dying ash).  

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A quadrant of 18 inch diameter trees along the creek bank, apparently the mother trees that seeded our part of the valley, still looked healthy last January, but are now showing signs of woodpecker damage, and branches in the canopy are failing. It seems only a matter of a few short years before these lovely giants fade, too. 

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The stark appearance of a leafless and dead tree jumps out of a forest of green trees. Even in the winter, there’s something different in the appearance of a dead and decaying tree, in comparison to one that is only taking a few months rest.  While 1-3% of forest trees die every year, the victim of disease, wind, and competition, in a short 13 years, millions of Americans ash trees have fallen to this latest scourge. The highways and country lanes of Franklin, Knox, and Licking counties between us and Columbus are punctuated by long lines of dead and struggling ash trees, and the roadsides in our neighborhood are beginning to show the inevitable results of a tree species that is helpless against a beetle that evolved on some other part of the planet.

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Several of the ashes near the dying trees are showing no obvious signs of distress, but their near mortality seems inevitable.  Farther uphill, and a few hundred yards away from the flat area with the dying trees, several small stands of very tall ash seem to be thriving within a dense stand of maple and oak.  Some research indicates that EABs prefer trees in the open.  Heroic chemical action can sometimes save single trees in the city, but there are just too many trees to spray in a rural setting. Our choices are to harvest our trees, which are the classic wood used for baseball bats, or to leave them as woodpecker havens. In some ways, this latest tree die off parallels what happened 40-50 years ago, when Dutch Elm Disease spread across Ohio, destroying millions of beautiful fan shaped shade trees. When my parents’ bought the Hollow in the early 70s, there were many elm trees, dead, but still standing. A new generation of elm trees grew up from seed and sapling, with many of them reaching over 40 feet tall.  As many of the medium and small elms dotting the base of our pond’s dam began dying over the previous several years, I hadn’t recognized yet what was happening. It wasn’t until our largest, and most classically shaped elm (below) began losing its leaves that I understood that our region was being revisited by another round of elm disease, which is now taking advantage of the regrowth in our elm population.  This has killed a number of trees in the areas where we spend most of our time. 

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Taking are required classes in forestry has been a great learning experience for me and Elizabeth, but we’ve also lost some of our blissful ignorance.  A growing variety of insects and diseases are threatening other species in Ohio.  In the 1970s, lovely white dogwoods covered our hillsides in the springtime, but now, I can almost count our dogwood trees on my fingers. While changes in the overall canopy, and a reduction in open space have reduced our dogwood habitat, its hard not to believe that Dogwood Anthracnose hasn’t played a role.   While it is still relatively rare, Oak Wilt would potentially be a huge impact on one of our most common and our most economically valuable trees.  I don’t find the walnut trees to be especially pretty to look at, but they have lovely and valuable wood, and most falls provide us with a large crop of inconvenient but tasty nuts.  Thousand Cankers Disease is not yet impacting Ohio walnuts, but the state foresters are on the lookout for it.  The Asian Long-Horned Beetle hasn’t made inroads into Ohio, yet, but could potentially destroy the hundreds of sugar and red maples on our property.  There doesn’t seem to be any specific disease impacting black cherries, which are a surprisingly short-lived tree, but there seem to be an exceptional number of our larger cherries that are sustaining heavy woodpecker damage, which indicates fatal levels of insect infestation, which probably also means fungus.

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Making A Splash

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

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After 2 years of debate, Elizabeth and I finally decided to take the irrevocable step of hiring Marvin the Yodeling Yoder to remove 6 of the maple trees between cabin and pond.  Arriving for an initial consultation, Marv admitted that he’d never dropped such large trees into a body of water before, but after considering the logistics, he started to exhibit some enthusiasm.  Even in a lifetime of tree felling, I assume that there are always new challenges.

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A couple weeks later, on a lovely spring Friday, Marvin’s driver delivered him, a suite of Stihl chainsaws, and a JD tractor. Elizabeth, my parents, and I all pulled up chairs and cameras, and prepared to enjoy the show.  Marvin loves to yodel after dropping each tree, which is always a treat.  Combined with the added excitement of the big splashes, tidal waves, and the added complication of aquatic extraction, it was the most fun I’d had since the day all the cement trucks arrived to pour the foundation walls.

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Its no small matter to end a life that has lasted longer than my own, even it if is just a tree, and there’s no going back.  The tumbling trees in the first two images can also be seen 4 decades earlier, at center left above, a November 1976 shot showing the excavation of the pond (dozers are digging the dam in the background).  Checking several stumps, I was able to count 60 about rings, representing a relatively short but eventful life for a sugar maple.

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As shown in the somewhat cluttered Spring 2013 view, It was apparent as soon as we moved into the cabin that we’d eventually take down more trees.  The inconvenience of fishing them out of the pond was only part of our hesitation, though.  The development of a woodland, even one that has been thoroughly pawed over for 150 years, raises aesthetic questions about our relationship to the land, and practical issues about ongoing maintenance.

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The improved view above also includes a slice of lawn 2.0, a recently top-soiled, graded, and fertilized area of turf that now requires the regular ministrations of a used Lawn-Boy, courtesy of the Amish wizards at Charm Engine. Elizabeth has taken the weed eater to the tree-free slope between house and pond several times this year, and I’ve gingerly explored the adjoining slopes with tractor and brush hog.  While we love being close to nature, there’s an appeal in conquering it, too. It isn’t a question of whether more trees will come down and more petroleum-enabled mowing will take place. Its only a question of how far civilization spreads.

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There’s a reason that country people usually don’t build their houses in the middle of the woods, and it involves more than the soothing satisfaction of surrounding yourself with a putting green. Besides the annual summer millipede plague, and a ceaseless series of teething rodents, the trees represent a potential threat to the cabin. As we learned this week, when the wind is strong enough, falling trees don’t feel compelled to obey the law of gravity.  A nocturnal snotbuster of a storm this week brought down a dead tree, taking out the Internet dish. Marvin had offered to take that one down too, but I enjoyed seeing the woodpeckers and assumed that it when it did fall, it would be in the opposite direction.

Hollow Maintenance

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

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Kirk, my parents, and I, arrived at the Hollow on July 3–Elizabeth couldn’t make it this year.

We spent some time the first couple days doing some maintenance. Before setting up the tent on top of the dam, we used the tractor to yank the willow bushes from the front of the dam.

Between the chain saw, the tractor, a lot of sweat, and a bit of poison ivy, we managed to open up some of the trails that were blocked by fallen trees during last summer’s mini-nado and the big ice storm a few years earlier. The one we call the Ridge Trail, along the eastern edge of our property, had been blocked by a number of large birch branches for at least 4 years.

We cleared several downed maples between The Valley and the Ridge Trail (shown at left) and then tackled the big birch. After all those years, the branches had shrunk a bit, and were somewhat rotted, making it a lot easier to trim them and then push the logs out of the way with the tractor.

The trail on the western edge of The Hollow, leading up to the Upper Meadow, has been blocked for a number of years by a large tree, and its half-uprooted stump, that blocked the trail just before a very sharp hairpin. In the past, I’d been able to drive the tractor around that spot, but it was too wet last year, and I wasn’t able to mow the grass in the upper meadow, the highest spot in The Hollow.

It took about an hour to saw the end off this big log, and to attack the tree stump with a shovel, cleaning off much of the clay that was still stuck to the roots. Figuring we’d have to saw the trunk off right next to the stump, I dug a hole under it saw that we could saw it without dulling the blade. As it turned out, we were able to pop it right out of the ground with the tractor’s front end loader.

July09-213-2.jpgThe biggest project involved the felling of a 28-year old, 40 foot high pine tree. After the Northeast Blackout of 2003, the power companies have been a lot more aggressive in preventing trees from interfering with power lines. They finally reached The Hollow last year, spraying some sort of herbicide on everything within site of the incoming electric wires. Whether or not this pine tree would ever recover, it would always be horribly scarred by the loss of most of its branches, and it would always represent a threat to the power line, so we decided to take it out.

Felling a tree uphill is a bit of a trick, especially when it is bigger than a telephone pole. If we failed, the falling tree would take the power lines down with it, so I climbed up the side of the tree with a ladder, attached a chain to it, and attached the chain to a come along winch tied to the base of another tree. Taking a big notch out of the uphill side of the tree, Dad tightened up the winch, and the tree started to lean uphill. I finished sawing the other side of the trunk, while Dad continued to winch, and we managed to drop it exactly where we’d planned, without loss of human limb, or power.

Unfurling the Tannenbaum

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Tannenbaum08-3.jpgBefore leaving on my trip, I had to perform one last ritual, the ceremonial unfurling of the Tannenbaum, which is a purely male task in my household. I used to think that it took a lot of effort to purchase and ‘plant’ a natural Christmas tree. I remember my dad struggling with the tree and a flimsy sheet metal holder, made out of red & green sheet metal. It had 3 screws to hold and center the tree, and he used to put pennies between the ends of the screws and the tree to keep them from just boring right thru the tree. We had a similar holder when first married, but when I found a heavy welded steel holder at a shopping mall gadget shop, I bought it, intending it to be a lifetime purchase. It still took between 30 and 120 minutes of fussing with saws, hatchets, and acetylene torches, usually in a constant downpour that was just a bit to warm to freeze, at least until it was under your collar.

Moving to Europe, and renting our dwelling, we decided that artificial would be most appropriate. I guess we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of the current tree, which I’ve just spent over an hour straightening. The tree is made from a central stalk with a bunch of brushes hanging off it from wires. Once you’ve found it in the garage, taking it out of the box (last year, we bought a special bag for it), and putting it together is about a 5 minute task. Then you start preening and straightening the branches. This is when you start wondering if a real tree wouldn’t be less work. Its a trade off between the sticky sap and pleasant smell of a real tree, and the straightening and increasingly moldy whiffy smell of the Fuller brush tree. I should borrow one of those pine tree scent gidgets that all cabbies have hanging from their rear view mirror (some are pine, many are vanilla, and a lot of them are just something abstract and stinky to compensate for the loss of tobacco privileges).

Listening to the recording of a recent NFL game, just to get me into an American mood, I started in on the lights, which is another male responsibility. Christmas lights used to be big hunky fiddly things that were so expensive you’d repair every year. Now they are delicate little fiddly things that break even more often, but aren’t worth repairing. Like the tree, they come from China, so they are probably unhealthy to eat. Light strings don’t just plug into the wall any more–they plug into a 24v wall wart. This means that you not only have to find the lights, but you also have to figure out where your son put the transformers. Even though he’s at college in the States, he still managed to hide them before leaving, using them for his Chinese-themed (again) 18th birthday party. The market seems to have standardized on a common voltage and plug, so the good news is that you don’t need the transformer that came with the light string your wife wants to use. I managed to get about 80% of the lights working on a string of incandescent bulbs, and all the lights were burning on an incredibly blue LED-based string.