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Vulnerable Strength

October 11, 2018

The elm tree on our parkway in Villa Park was my reading tree in the 1950s. I’d walk to the library and bring home a stack of books to enjoy while sitting against the trunk and enjoying the cool of its shade.

Sometimes, it was my peach-eating tree, the perfect place to run after grabbing a fresh peach from the kitchen, letting the juices drip down my chin – the taste of summertime.

Other times, it was a place to sit with a string attached to a box, trying to catch a squirrel. That never worked, but it never stopped me from trying.

My favorite time was when its leaves started to change, because my birthday and Halloween would follow closely behind.  My brother and I would rake those yellow and orange dried leaves into a pile, and take turns with the other neighbors jumping into them, piling them up again, and jumping until the piles became scattered fragments.

A new decade arrived, and with it, entry into 4th grade, a new teacher, new friends, and a new season that would bring the leaves flying and the Halloween spirits with them.

I’d never thought much about the other elm trees that lined the parkway on my block. They were a part of the landscape I’d grown up with, as much a part of the way the world looked as the grass we ran through barefoot or the clouds we’d envision as teddy bears or cats.  The trees were just there – until the day I walked home from school and they weren’t.

As I approached the corner to my block, I heard an unfamiliar whine and chop sound. At the corner, I saw the tree cutters down the road, and every tree on every parkway going toward my house was a sad, lonely stump.  How did this happen? I couldn’t make any sense of it, only looked to see that my tree was still there.  I ran the length of the long block, wanting to warn my mother, wanting to be sure she told them to not take our tree, flying into the house to tell her what was happening.

“I know, Sweetie,” she said. “They’ll take our tree too – they all have Dutch Elm Disease.”

I didn’t know then that the blight of Dutch Elm Disease had started decades before, so called because it was first identified in 1921 by botanical pathologists in the Netherlands. It reached America in 1928. The elm bark beetles causing the disease reached Detroit in 1950, and Chicago in 1960.

By 1989, 75% of those majestic elms in North America were nothing but a child’s memory of their elm-tree lined streets.

The destruction of trees that had seemed invincible left us Baby Boomers with a legacy of memories, and with the knowledge that even things that look mighty and strong are vulnerable and need our protection.

I cannot see a tree cut down without that sadness of the loss of elm trees washing over me.  Protecting our trees by replanting, recycling, and respecting the knowledge of botanists is my greatest hope.


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