Grief, Remembered

The boardwalk the grandchildren all worked on with Merv is glorious. I don’t have an excuse anymore to stay away. I conquered my cemetery dread. We walked it yesterday. We passed through the ash grove, now stark high trees all white in the sun, no leaves at all. I can see the devastation even here at the cabin. The ash trees at the edge of the grove stand naked, white and unmoving in the wind that sways their neighbors. The aspen leaves shake, the catalpa fan, the maples and hickories dance. But no sap runs up and down the trunks and the branches of the ash trees. No leaf rustles, no chlorophyll vitality greens. The last movement of those dead trees is a crash to the ground. The disease took the grove.

We could see right in front of us that something terrible was wrong with the trees of the ash grove. The canopy was breaking open into gaping holes. We watched the disease took the weaker trees, then the stronger trees, then all of them.

The papers were all full of the danger of the emerald ash borer. We read every article with dread. Down the road our neighbors were hanging out ash borer traps. Nothing to do about the emerald ash borer. Just advance notice for tree management. We searched the bark of our ash trees for the tell tale signs of the insect but there were none. Then we read about ash yellows, a systemic disease, a mycoplasma disease, killing slowly. First dead leaves, then dead branches, then dead limbs, then a witches broom. A good ominous name for those bursts of new growth, ringing the base of the ash tree or just a little way up. The trees’ last desperate stretch toward survival. Then, death.

Our first bunch of grandchildren and we had something we called Camp PapaNana. They would come for a week or 2 and we would all hike and swim and do crafts and put on a play at the end for the wider family. We told stories of the pond cycle and the creatures of the pond. We used magnifying glasses and nets. We named the creatures. Another year we celebrated the forest in its complexity, taking rubbings of tree bark, tracing fern fronds on wood, hunting for the biggest of a species, hugging it. We learned about mast years, those times when an entire neighborhood of trees overwhelms even the squirrels and the birds with its bounty, dropping 3 or 4 or 5 times the nuts in a celebration of bounty.

And we sang songs. We taught songs and learned songs and added in harmonies and brought songs conjured from old scout campfires. My favorite was “The Ash Grove…The ash grove how graceful, how plainly ‘tis speaking, the wind through it playing has language for me.” The melody is so sweet, lilting through its spare chords. The descant aches to be sung. I loved that song. I loved that we had an ash grove, overtaking the apples beneath, shadowing the apples, the ground, the scrub with their descant canopy, lilting in the breeze. The grove was creating itself year by year to a magical place, one tree, hundreds of trees, stretching acres. Surely the trees knew our excitement, our love. They must have heard us singing to them.

We didn’t mean to have dying on the list of subjects for that year’s Camp PapaNana. We didn’t mean to have dying on the list of activities for our frail old people. Dread, the consultation with experts, the diagnosis, the inevitability. Humans don’t like inevitability. We flail against it. We desperately search for solutions. Sometimes there are none. The only role is to bring dignity, to witness. We witnessed the progression of whiteness, the loss of suppleness, the falls. We called in the expert, the forester. We called in the experts, the neurologist, the cardiologist. Exams. Core extractions. Searches for cause. Searches for solutions.

And then the letter. “Good news! Your ash trees don’t have the emerald ash borer. Bad news, they have ash yellows. Nothing to do. They will all die.” We read it in the ash grove to our grandchildren. I wept. They watched, puzzled. We sang ‘The Ash Grove.’ We walked out of the ash grove that was dying, dead.

We followed the boardwalk path yesterday to what had been the ash grove. The dead trees are there, many still standing, some fallen. The standing trees hold colonies of birds, of insects. The fallen trees shelter the mice, the rabbits, the fox. The juneberry, the dogwood, the elderberry are laden with berries, sparkling in the mottled sunlight. The apples who had been under the death sentence of the ash tree canopy have sprung back in luxurious health, red apples in abundance. Red maples, little seedling just waiting for the sun, for a break in the canopy, patiently, waiting for years, have sprung up gleefully. Larches and pines Merv planted by the road have launched into independence. And here and there, an ash tree in full leaf, healthy limbs, healthy bark.