The trees are sick

  • Posted on: 27 June 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

One of the sad reasons that I've been more and more interested in trees is that I've seen first-hand how poorly they are doing. Growing up on a farm in Ohio, we had a woods on our pastures. Now cattle pastures are not the most healthy place for groves of trees, because with the relatively high density of animals on a restricted piece of land, they tend to graze the entire plot extensively, and farmers tend to mow or brush hog to promote grass growth. All of these things mean that on a cattle pasture, there are often no saplings, except at the margins and just beyond the fencelines.  My father was better than most, in that we had a fairly large pasture for the herd population, and it had a well established grove of trees, particularly of dogwoods, maples, pignut hickory, shagbark hickory, mockernut hickory, butternut, ash, oak, walnut, and beech. 

But over the years since my early childhood, I've seen populations of trees sicken and die. The old Elms that were left when I was a boy died off from Dutch Elm disease early on. Since then I've seen the ashes succumb to Emerald Ash borers (including one in our front yard), and the few butternuts die from their own blight. 

There are things happening in dendrology right now, partially because of altruism (people want to bring back treasured old tree species such as the American Chestnut) but mostly because of economic terror. The entire Walnut industry is scared of the Walnut blight. Landscaping firms have spent alot of time and money trying to save treasured trees on college campuses and the estates of the wealthy.  But we, the general public, can't ignore what is happening. And with the new stresses of global climate change, many species are under attack in ways they may have encountered before, but never with the landscape limitations they now suffer, living in a world dominated by human beings.

It's always strange to me that woodworkers like myself are not usually that concerned about trees. To them, it's only a resource. When a species is under attack, they hear about it and talk about it (if at all), only in the context of how it will change the prices of their favorite lumber.  For ash, the emarald borer infestation has been seen as an opportunity to buy the lumber cheap.  But even I've been astonished at how little attention they've paid to the threat to the black walnut, one of their favorite woods.  I guess trees are too far removed from the business end of woodworker to garner notice.

I refuse to ignore this or be blind about it. I'm tracking stories as I come across them about what is happening in North America around our great forests and the wonderful trees that live there.