September 26, 2023

A tornado ripped through our farm last year and smashed a lot of trees. The force toppled a proud ash tree that grew on our treeline. The tree fell into the neighbour’s hay field.

The neighbour used a tractor and pushed the ash into the shared fence line, shoving it up among the old split-rail cedar fences. Since then I’ve made trips when I have a moment, to buck the ash tree up with the chainsaw. Then I load the rounds of ash in our little red wagon, attached to my rider mower (that no longer mows) and haul them back to the cottage for firewood.

The emerald ash borer, or EAB, a beetle from Asia, is on a rampage to kill all the ash in North America. This beetle has no predators in Canada. A few years ago when my Master of Forest Conservation class visited Montreal, we learned about trials by the City of Montreal to release wasps to control the beetle. The wasps work a bit like the creature in Alien; they lay their eggs in the larvae of host insects, and then thrive at the expense of the EAB.

The trials continue, but millions of ash across the continent have already died.

In the afternoon I stood on the lawn, splitting the ash with my maul. Ash is a lovely tree to split. It has a straight grain and very few knots. It splits easily. When you split ash it emits a woodsy, tangy, almost slightly burnt aroma. A zesty smell that makes you feel alive.

As I split the ash I thought of cozy evenings, warm by the wood stove. I felt sad, too. This beetle came to Canada from overseas, probably hidden in a wooden shipping pallet. The beetle hitched a ride on the kind of pallet manufacturers use to send us all the stuff we buy but we don’t make. Because of our conspicuous consumption and global trade, all the ash in Canada will die. It seems outrageous that our children will not have mature ash trees to burn in their wood stoves.

The morning of the day I split the ash, I had travelled to Trenton to visit a couple, both air force personnel, who own a farm. About four hectares of their farm is forest. On their property tower dozens, maybe hundreds, of dead ash trees. The pilot and I just sort of stood there in silence and stared at the graveyard: a long line of dead ash trees, no leaves, standing sadly in the forest. He said, “When you fly over Ontario, you just see them: forest after forest of dead ash trees.”

What can we do? We can hope for success with the wasp biocontrol of EAB. We can fund science that works on biocontrol for other invasive insects and illnesses, such as those killing our hemlock, beech and oak trees. We can be vigilant to not move firewood around the province, to avoid spreading stuff that kills our trees. We can import less stuff from overseas and make stuff here instead. And most of all we can cherish nature in all its biodiversity; we can marvel at this irreplaceable, complex and glorious planet on which we live, and for which we need to care.