A few weeks ago we were talking about change. This past week I have been out in the fields and woods and I thought I might write about some changes I have observed over the last few years. These changes have nothing to do with spotty cell-phone service or the diminishing deer herd.
I am not sure how many years it has been since the gypsy moth invasion, but that incident transformed our mature forests for a lot of years to come. They seemed to favor the oak trees, and the devastating losses our forests incurred may never be recovered. When the infestation was at its height, you could take an early morning walk up the Jordan River trail and, if the wind wasn’t blowing, you could stop and hear what sounded like a constant soft rain falling. It was nothing more than the nasty little caterpillars eating up the forest and dropping their waste. The mighty oaks that were unable to withstand the onslaught later tumbled to the ground and are being reclaimed by the earth.
I don’t suppose I have to tell you much about the stink bugs that suddenly sprang up a few years ago. Some of our good research institutions have developed a spray that the orchardists can use to mitigate the damage they do to all sorts of fruit, particularly apples. That is a good thing for the farmers; the rest of us are left to deal with the stinking little varmints the best way we can. My roommate vacuums them up. But, then, we have to leave the vacuum outside because it stinks to high heaven. I get a bit of pleasure by knocking them off the side of the house and stepping on them.
It is my personal belief that in the lifetime of my grandchildren, or certainly their children, they will have seen the last of the valuable black locust trees in this area. This tree is not the prettiest thing you ever saw, but it is very useful to those living in the country and whose value systems appreciate such things. We used them for fence posts and gate posts and whenever we might be building something with wood that was in contact with the ground, like a hog pen. They are very rot resistant. And you could use the scraps for the best firewood ever. When you burn the seasoned wood it gives off a lot of heat and leaves only minimal ashes.
Our black locusts have been under attack for years from a tiny bug called the black locust leaf miner. The larval form of this little critter gets between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves and “mines” or eats the chlorophyll and the leaf turns brown. Oftentimes, it doesn’t kill an otherwise healthy tree, but trees that are already stressed from poor soil or drought may die, especially if subjected to this treatment year after year. In either event, it is just one more burden for the locust tree.
There used to be a fair number of brush fields around, and this is where the black locust saplings thrived. In some of those same places now, that haven’t been cleaned up to make room for grazing cattle, the dominant tree is the nasty high heaven. This tree is also called tree of heaven, but whatever you call it, in my mind it is about as useful as a stinkbug. A few years ago, in the springtime, one of our bluebird houses blew over. I cut a high heaven sapling about the size of my wrist. I cut the top off and sharpened the bottom and drove it into the ground.
I attached the birdhouse and felt good about getting some use out of a high heaven tree. I shouldn’t have been so smug. The bottom rotted off in six months, while the part above ground was putting out new buds. They tell me the roots of the high heaven tree give off a toxin that keeps other trees from sprouting and growing. I am not surprised. Where you see a stand of high heaven, there is usually precious little else growing there.
A few years ago, if you are the observant type, you may have noticed the interesting little purple boxes hanging in certain trees along the road. That was the beginning of an effort to measure the number and impact of the emerald ash borers. Today, in certain areas, it is difficult to find a living ash tree. In some stretches along the Skyline Drive from Panorama south to Big Meadows, it is like driving through a forest of nothing but dead and dying ash trees.
Something else is happening with the ash trees. Apparently, after having been invaded by the ash borers, some of our feathered friends, mostly woodpeckers of one stripe or the other, have found that they can dig into the bark of these infested trees and find bugs and worms to eat. What that leaves is a bunch of chips of bark on the ground and a tree that has a yellow sheen to it where the outer bark has been stripped off.
What the ash borer larvae do is eat the soft layer of growing tissue just under the bark. If you are old enough, you may remember some old timers girdling trees when they were clearing a field. Girdling is nothing more than cutting a pretty good notch all the way around the tree. That has the same effect as the damage of the ash borer; the tree dies because it cannot transport water and nutrients from the roots to the branches and leaves.
If you grew up like I did, you probably hate to see anything go to waste. This past week I have been cutting some dead ash trees for firewood. (Note: I believe it is presently against the law to transport infected firewood to areas that are not affected. I am not doing that.) What you find is that the bark peels off quite easily, because that living tissue that holds the bark on has been eaten away. You can see the little trails the larvae make as they travel around under the bark destroying the tree. When the larvae mature they leave the tree, leaving tiny “D” shaped holes in the bark. At this point, the tree is easily invaded by ants and other bugs.
I am told that the gypsy moth was brought to our shores from France in the mid-1860’s, by people trying to grow a better silkworm. We know how that turned out. I also read that the stink bugs, high heaven trees and the emerald ash borer came from Asia, most likely China. There is no going back to the way things were. We are probably stuck with these invaders for the rest of our lives.
The ash tree has been a staple in our woods and forests for untold generations. The black locusts have, as well, but they prefer more open areas and the edges of fields and forests and fence rows. Maybe some smart researcher at Virginia Tech or George Mason University will come up with the answers that will keep our black locust and ash trees from going the way of the dodo bird. If not, we will have to live with the changes, as unfortunate as they may be.