Monday, May 14, 2007

"Those Trees Were My Friends"

I forget who said it, an ent or an elf, but I think it was somewhere in the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. It was after the destruction of many trees by orcs.

That thought came to me last Friday as I was hiking with my wife Melody through some woods upstate, woods that once knew very well. It was grievous to me, because many trees were dead that once had been my friends. A whole long hillside of hemlocks was dead. It was ghastly and ghostly.

Between the trunks a strange and unhappy sunlight shone down. The death was so recent that there was no new growth yet. The ground was a mess of broken hemlock branches and leaves from nearby oaks and birches and beeches. The life had been sucked out of the place.

I had known specific trees from when I used to take care of the trail that we were hiking. There was one against a wall of rock that I used to like, and there was a particular grove in which I used to sit. There was the great big hemlock over that bend in the trail below the ridge, and the other one that stood senty at a little clearing. They all were dead.

They were all killed by the hemlock blight. It has been coming north for years. I learned of it back in 1995 when I was leading a backpacking group along the Appalachian Trail. We were taking a rest in a hemlock grove and the through-hiker who was with us told me about it. I had hoped it wouldn't come this far north, or that we had more time. Nope.

The trail I used to take care of is in the Wawayanda Hills upstate. Not very far upstate, just across the border from New Jersey, near Warwick, New York. The Reformed Church has a conference center there, at the northern tip of many square miles of forest in Passaic and Bergen counties. I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of hemlocks have died this last decade?

Will the hemlocks come back? Will resistant ones survive and breed and spread their young? The chestnuts have never come back from the chestnut blight. A very few elms have survived Dutch Elm Disease. These tend to be isolated ones, like a huge one I know if hidden inside a Park Slope block, or the great one that used to live at the main downtown intersection of Sayville, Long Island. My brother and I found its saplings in the alley behind the stores, so we transplanted them in our yard, and one of them still thrives; you can see it on Google Earth. Those trees were our friends.

When my brother Henk and I were kids in Bedford-Stuyvesant we spent a good deal of our time in trees: the Norway Maple on the side of the house and apple trees in back. And it wasn't just us. Our whole gang of kids was always up in trees.

Yep. I pray for the elms and the hemlocks. Right now the oaks and maples don't seem to need our intercessory prayers. So far nothing seems to be killing white pines, apart from human beings. I have some particular white pine friends in Brooklyn, Hoboken, and Ontario. But I tell you, if something were ever to happen to the white pines, I don't know if I could take it.

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