Lange: In Praise Of The Ash

Mar 9, 2018

There’s a lovely old Welsh tune, "The Ash-Grove" that elementary school music teachers and scout leaders often choose for their kids to sing. In it, lost love is recalled under the graceful boughs of the lovely and practical Ash tree.

I once bought ten acres of woods in New Hampshire because they looked so much like my Adirondacks. The county forester walked them with me and showed me how I could harvest them sustainably for firewood. But save these, he said, tapping a white ash. These are your most valuable trees.

Ash is used for baseball bats, tool handles, canoe paddles, oars, cabinets, and snowshoes. It's lovely to work with; one of the world's most beautiful British sports cars, the Morgan, is built on a furniture-quality ash frame coated in aluminum. It's ideal as firewood. You almost can split it with a butter knife, and it burns well with very little seasoning. An old saying goes, "Ash wood dry or ash wood green will warm the toes of the coldest queen." I rank it carefully in the stove wood holder by my entrance door because it makes a really snazzy pile.

But its days are numbered here in Vermont. A deadly scourge, the emerald ash borer, has been discovered in a woodlot in Orange. Its larvae hollows out tunnels beneath the trees' bark, and the tree is usually dead within two years. Since the adult ash borer doesn't fly far, limiting the speed of its spread, it almost certainly got to central Vermont hitch-hiking in a bunch of firewood.

My father never saw – couldn't have seen – a forest of virgin white pines. I've never seen a forest dominated by huge American chestnuts. My kids have never seen the lovely fans of American elms shading herds of cows on hot summer days. And my grandchildren, if they ever move East, may never see the smooth, graceful trunks of ash trees reaching toward the sky in a hardwood forest. Like the others before them, they may soon disappear. Our lovely forests soon will be another species poorer, and our grandchildren, who never will have seen it, won't miss it.

But there is a ray of hope: about one percent of our native ashes seem to have a genetic resistance to the emerald pest - if only scientists can locate and propagate them in time.