BC SealBoston College Magazine Spring 2005
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PROLOGUE

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Ulmus

Three elms came with our house. They came as a surprise, like the mummified squirrel under the built-in cabinet in the pantry, the dust-covered wheelchair in a corner of the cellar, and the photograph that floated free when we gutted the kitchen: a black and white print of a bosomy woman with a fifties hairdo, her arms around two brush-cut boys, one grinning, one plotting murder.

It was winter when we moved into our house on a dead-end street, and the elms were on a 20-foot-wide patch of soil at the bottom of the road, about 50 feet tall, their collective crowns stretching over roofs, including mine. I didn't know what trees they were; nor did I know that they were ours, that the street was a private way, never adopted by the town, and therefore the responsibility of its abutters.

I learned about the private way when the town's trucks didn't show up to plow snow. And I figured out the trees in the spring, when they leafed out. A few months later I had Chris come by to look at trimming some limbs that had overgrown my roof. "Not too many of these around," he said, touching one of the trees like you'd lay a hand on a horse's flank. He was an arborist with the hair and moustache of a Doobie Brother, a battered dump truck, and a felt slouch hat with a feather in the band that he wore as he climbed trees—a magic helmet, I thought. "Maybe they're hiding here," I said. "It's possible," he shrugged.

Maybe. Dutch elm disease, or DED as it's piquantly abbreviated in the literature, is caused by an Asian fungus, Ophiostoma ulmi, that landed in the United States about 1930 in a shipment of logs from Europe and that has since been moving from elm to elm through contiguous root systems and on the body of the elm bark beetle. Either distribution method requires relative proximity between infected and healthy trees, and both roots and beetles move slowly, which is why the last large scale battles between elm parasite and elm preserver are being fought today in distant (from the East Coast) redoubts in the Upper Midwest.

The trees at the end of my street, while not in Duluth, were proximate to no other elms and probably had not been for at least 20 years, the local stock having been annihilated during the 1960s and 1970s, because Ulmus americana, as it happens, has no defense against Ophiostoma ulmi, and the elm bark beetle, with its habit of grubbing up in dead trees so its progeny can move on to live ones, is a nearly perfect DED vector. Moreover, many American towns, mine included, had pridefully planted roadsides with fast-growing elms that joined branches up and down and across the streets, forming, in time, a fully loaded petri dish miles long.

My elms (no one else on the street was interested in them) did fine for a while. They dropped seeds in spring and leaves in fall, and once in a while Chris clambered up a trunk to take a chain saw to an obtrusive limb. Sometimes, yanking the elm seedlings that anchored themselves in my garden beds, I allowed myself to imagine that I had blundered into possession of a variety of Ulmus americana so invulnerable that it could develop into an annoyance.

The first sign of trouble was a branch with dead pendant leaves one day in July six years ago. Then another branch "flagged." The way DED works is that the fungus clots the capillary system beneath the bark, preventing the movement of water upward from the roots. Where the fungus sets up home determines what dies above or below, but since you can't see the clots or map a tree's pipelines, the death of an elm by DED unfolds like a series of small strokes in a human being. One day it's one thing, and the next day it's something else on the other side. My trees were deadwood in two years. Whether they were struck by DED remains a question. Some experts looked up and said yes. Some said no, but that another disease or drought was responsible. Elms, it happens, are "so fallible," in the mournful phrasing of the horticultural eminence Michael Dirr.

It's been four years since I had them taken down, I haven't planted anything in the vacancy. For one thing, I'm not sure what I want to put in. I think of one thing and then another, none of which replace the elms. And the privet that long shivered in the elm shade is thriving, "loving that sun," as Chris said with pleasure last time he came by.

Chris still has his hat, but he's lost the hair and has a wife and young daughter and a new truck. I'd called him to trim out some fading choke cherries that border my backyard. On the walk down the driveway, he noticed a reedy young elm, about 20 feet tall, growing alongside the fence. It could be trouble someday, heaving driveway and fence, casting leaves into roof gutters, dying young and costing good money to remove. We stood looking at it. "You want me to take that out?" he said. "Nah," I said, "I'll deal with it." I didn't mention that I'd been tending it a bit, cutting out suckers, pulling sweetbriar vine from the branches. That was last spring. I'm betting it hits 30 feet this summer. I'm not thinking about what happens next.

Our story on the trees that haunt Jim Balog begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

 

 
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