Pandemic Diary: The Mother Trees

Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

There is a future…It is not ours to have and to hold.
Eva Saulitis, Becoming Earth.

Author’s Note: This essay is comprised of excerpts from a diary kept during the Slow the Spread, Stay in Place Quarantine for COVID-19 in Vermont.

19 March, Vernal Equinox.

I press the release on the hand drill, and the 1/2” bit bores smoothly through the maple tree’s stiff bark. A delicate spray of wood dust gathers at the hole like pollen.

It’s forty degrees, sun warms my face, and melting snow reveals a swath of wheat-colored grass in the meadow below me. I love this day, one of my favorite of the year, when I tap one maple tree in my ritual welcome to spring.

The maple tree I have selected has lived on our hillside for perhaps two centuries. One of her massive arms, severed by wind several years ago, points skyward, all its outer skin loved off by downy woodpeckers nibbling aphids and by insects burrowing to breed. As the drill grows heavy, I place my free hand on the maple for support, and her gnarled bark grazes my palm in a rough kiss. Several of her thick roots protrude above the ground like the backs of crocodiles. I stand on one as I work.

When the tree starts dripping sap, I stop the drill, place my mouth on the hole and drink. The maple’s essence flows into my mouth in clear, sweet droplets. She gives me her life as only a mother could.

I screw a stainless steel tap into the hole and hang a metal bucket from its loop. Then I lean my full body into the tree, cheek to bark, arms encircling half her girth in a tight embrace.

Plunk plunk plunk.

Sap taps the metal bottom of the bucket in a beloved introduction to a well-known song. With that home key, Spring and the COVID-19 Stay in Place quarantine arrive.

22 March.

About fifty feet away from the maple tree, an enormous white ash tree anchors the edge of the woods, a sentinel by the gate that separates our pasture from the forest. White ash grows fairly quickly and is known for her straight, tall trunks. This one, perhaps eighty years-old, towers over neighboring hemlock and white spruce, her thick trunk soaring skyward then sprouting a tangle of branches and twigs. When I reach my arms around her, my fingertips barely touch. For seventeen years, I have opened the gate and greeted this white ash on my daily walk, ski, or snowshoe into the woods.

This rugged guardian tree anchors the forest. I have always imagined she will outlive me.

But the recent arrival in my county of the emerald ash borer, an insect responsible for the deaths of millions of ash trees in the United States and Canada, may mean she will die first.

24 March.

Smaller than a dime, with an iridescent green body and wings, one emerald ash borer can lay up to 200 eggs in a tree’s inner bark during her six-week lifespan. Her hungry hatchlings feast on the tree from the inside, disrupting the tree’s nutrient uptake, eventually destroying her. Because infected trees give no outward signs that they are infested, by the time I see the white ash’ s leafless crown one spring, or notice shoots sprouting from her base, or detect tiny trails in her craggy bark, her wood has gone soft and her death will likely follow.

Local foresters suggest that we cut some of the ash trees in our forest while they are healthy. We could finish flooring our house or sheath our barn walls with the blonde boards planed from the ash’s trunks. We could heat our home with the wood.

In our mostly forested county, we have been anticipating the emerald ash borer’s arrival. Twenty years ago, the insect stowed away in wooden packing crates on ships traveling from Asia. Climate change plays a role in the proliferation of the insect. Warming winters keep the emerald ash borer alive.

Last September, a logger discovered the brilliant green insect ten miles away from our land. Since then, foresters, community members, landowners, loggers and university researchers have come together to discover what, if anything, might be done to spare the trees.

Twenty feet from our house, in a small stand of maple and beech trees, one white ash rises eighty feet into the sky. At the base of her trunk, new shoots sprout up, indicating that the tree is funneling her energy into creating life, a sign that she is weakening. For years, she has grown lavishly, reaching her branches closer and closer to the windows in front of my bed. One of her long, elegant branches touches our back porch roof.

In the seventeen years I have lived here, I have watched her grow from sapling to adult.

What does she know about this threat to her life?

I place my arms around the ash and feel her solidity and strength flow into me, even though, even as, she is dying.

26 March.

This morning, I wake with questions.

Does the coronavirus live here in my tiny hamlet of thirteen homes, where the forest shelters most of us from seeing our neighbors? Is my husband, who practices Chinese medicine, a carrier? Am I, who teach at an alternative school in the close quarters of a yurt?

Four people in our village have returned from Europe in the past week, on what they believed to be last flights home. Yesterday, I met one of them while walking through a stand of conifers in dense morning mist. As we stood more than six feet apart, I watched her breath condense, smoke-like in the air. I inhaled and exhaled back. Moisture alighted and glimmered like tiny stars on hemlock branches as sun barely reached through the dark forest.

I felt the whispers of iridescent green wings fluttering on my shoulder.

28 March.

If the mother ash tree is dying, that may mean most of the ash trees in our 47-acre forest will die, approximately ten percent of all our trees. Today as I snowshoed past the mother ash, two slender green sprouts reached up from her base. These new shoots likely reveal her decline.

Yesterday, seventy-one new COVID-19 cases were added to the 461 already diagnosed in Vermont’s population of 600,000, the most in one day so far. Twenty people have died. The peak of the disease is expected to arrive in early May, along with the tulips, daffodils, first new leaves on the trees, and hatches of the emerald ash borer.

Because of COVID-19’s swift infection rate, humans are dying alone, quarantined from relatives and friends.

In a forest of trees, the white ash will not have to suffer this fate.

2 April.

On Vermont’s Covid-19 map, my county is pale green. Ten cases have been diagnosed here, not low, not high, for our rural state.. The Stay in Place Order, shuttering all non-essential businesses has been extended until May 15.

This morning, an email from Ginny, our local forester, includes a link to a Slow the Spread Map of Vermont, which I expect to be about efforts to contain COVID-19. Instead the link reveals a map that charts areas infested by the emerald ash borer. Three large bulls-eyes – deep red circles outlined in black and bright green – indicate high density infestation. All three lie just north of my town. Half bulls-eyes mark four other areas nearby. Our ash trees live in the epicenter.

The information that accompanies the emerald ash borer map tells me that Slow the Spread recommendations should not be confused with Quarantine Recommendations, the exact language the state of Vermont uses to talk about containing COVID-19. No lumber, wood chips, or tree waste may move out of known infection zones, and Vermont loggers, landowners, and foresters are bound by those rules.

The dead branches in the crown of the white ash that reaches toward my bedroom window indicate she is weak.

Will we take her life?

A debilitated tree could topple onto our house in the frequent 40 mile per hour winds here at 1700 feet. We could use her wood in the cookstove next winter. We know the reasons why we should.

Today, we cannot decide.

5 April.

From the windows in our bedroom, I see my husband, Glynn, in bright orange hardhat and chaps prop our tallest ladder next to the white ash.

Earlier this morning, we smudged the base of the ash with sage from last year’s garden, made a circle with our outstretched arms around her. I thanked the tree for sharing her days with us, for shading us, for oxygenating the air we breathe, for adding beauty to our lives.

Still, my heart feels heavy as stone. It is intense, intimate, to fell a tree.

You want the sweep of branches and 80-foot trunk to drop safely, neatly to the ground.

You want her landing to be easy and empty of everything but sound.

You want the ache you feel to remind you of the weight of this choice, long after it is over.

You are sawing into bone, cutting straight to her heartwood, severing her above the roots where she stands intricately woven into the ground. You want to remember that your life is not more important than hers.

Once the tree falls, you will saw into branches and limbs that still feel very much alive.

Once the tree falls you will have done something you can never undo.

As I pull on my canvas work pants, I hear Glynn pull the cord on the chain saw. The motor chokes, then rumbles into a whine as he tests it. Glynn lifts the visor on his helmet and looks up at me. His eyes ask if I’m sure. I nod. He flips down his visor in response.

I look through the bedroom window at the ash branches reaching toward me for the last time. The chainsaw whirs a high-pitched cry as it cuts. It takes a long time getting through. My eyes, breath, and heart pulse with the tree. I breathe all the energetic strength I have into her.

In a whoosh, the branches disappear, and space opens, wide as an ocean, where the tree just stood.

My eyes fill. I survey clouds.

Glynn pulls the cord on the saw once more and starts limbing the branches. The ash lies on her side, arms reaching toward the woodshed, her long body a reclining Buddha, resting near the garden where the tips of yellow daffodils push up through matted leaves.

As Glynn limbs the tree, I drag branches away. With a hand saw I cut and stack her limbs. In an hour, the tree remakes herself into clusters of thick rounds of trunk and thirty neat piles of branches. Next, I lift each section of her trunk, one at at time, cradle it in my arms, and carry the tree’s body, piece by dismembered piece, to a place on the porch to rest.

I mourn. I walk. I stack. Until the work is complete.

Next winter, I will bring the tree into my home, kindle our kitchen stove with her. In morning tea, in stews and soups, in the warmth she offers the heart of our kitchen, I will know her life once again.

8 April.

As I scroll through my personal email at the kitchen table, the pandemic fills my inbox with letters from friends, alerts, notes from every business person I know now offering their services through the window of my laptop.

I close the screen, and return to bed with a cup of tea. With the covers pulled over my bent knees, I look through the window at the space the white ash left behind. Grey smoke balls of cloud spatter the pale orange morning sky. Emptiness has a way of filling up, eventually. Right now, I miss the ash – her straight trunk, the nuthatches that scuttled down her body, head first, digging bugs.

I contemplate the emptiness, and become aware of something else, a feeling growing inside of me. In the center of my chest, I feel the knot that has been tightening since the first day of Spring. By experiencing the threat of a virus that specifically targets humans, I have become more deeply aware, in the rivers of my blood, of the terror felt by the creatures, plants, and ecosystems threatened by humans. Rage and fear ignite a hot, burning pain inside of me. I swim with the humpback whale caught in the shipping lanes, simmer with coral bleaching in the seas, scorch with one billion mammals, birds, and reptiles who perished in the Australian fires. I haunt clearcuts with the ghosts of old growth trees in Clayquot Sound.

I feel fused, melded with the Earth.

10 April.

Dream Fragment.

I follow a dirt road as it winds between two grassy meadows, their edges lined with slender-trunked trees whose newly green leaves shimmer atop arching branches. Every tree sways, alive in the warm breeze, sun, and cloudless sky. Above me, I hear women’s voices. I stop walking and look up. High in the branches, barefoot, wearing jeans and white tee shirts, two young women laugh and talk playfully to each other. They call down to me, and invite me up.

“Leave your bag,” they say. “You won’t need it.”

Sun dapples leaves and branches, the women’s eyes sparkle with life. I stand on the ground, hugging the smooth tree trunk, looking up. All the trees I can see have women in them, lying on branches, talking and laughing, their hair streaming down, their bodies as nimble as the limbs where they lie. Their voices resound, melodious as song.

I cannot believe I have not, before now, noticed that women live in trees.

I drop my pack, wrap my arms and legs around one tree, and begin to pull myself up.

As I am climbing, I worry that I will not be able to lie, balance, and sway on branches as effortlessly as the women above me do. But I climb easily, and as I near the first branch, a woman reaches out for my hand and pulls me up to sit beside her, then she lets me go. I lie back, feel the hard curve of a branch fill the hollows of my spine, and I move with my branch in the wind. I am light and joyful, as leaves skim over my face, arms, chest, and legs. I hear myself murmur sounds in an unfamiliar language. I am saying words I have never heard before, speaking a language I know and do not know, simply for pleasure. I am being taught the words of the wind, the vocabulary of tree. The ground below, the meadows, the road all look so small now, so very far away.

Dream fragment image

12 April.

Today is Easter Sunday, day 38 of the quarantine, and I walk with Glynn across our meadow and into the forest. I wear a blue cotton dress printed with tiny daisies layered over my ski pants and wool sweater. I will have to be the blossoms that I dream of seeing emerge from beneath the snow.

One half mile along the path, the trail forks. One fork leads up to the vernal pool, and beyond that, to the height of our land, then onto miles of sugar maple and conifer forests, past four vernal pools, through quartz ledges with vertical drops, to a dark hemlock copse where one winter, I found the entire skeleton of a deer. The other fork leaps over ridges, descends into a ravine, then onto a neighboring property, where over 100 acres of deciduous forest are cut through with logging roads.

We walk the second fork, feeling so light without the skis or snowshoes we’ve needed for the past six months. As we climb the south side of the ridge, the snow thins, and soon we walk on bare ground. Near the top, we find ourselves in the midst of a wide clearcut.

Dozens of stumps lie before us.

“They’re all white ash trees,” Glynn says, as he bends down and meets the golden inner bark of one of the stumps face to face. “They’ve taken them preemptively. Likely early in November before the snow fell.”

I count forty-two stumps.

I think of our Mother Tree, the signs of emerald ash borer infestation in her, of the white ash that now lies stacked on our back porch. Soon, in all probability, this is the fate of all the ash that grows on our land. Neither of us wants to kill all of our trees. Each time I walk in the forest, I gaze upward, looking, listening for what the trees might advise.. Somewhere among them, high in their branches, women dance and laugh and love freely.

16 April.

This morning, over the phone, my neighbor calls to tell me her brother-in-law lies with other corpses in a refrigerator truck in Manhattan. My inbox, as usual, is full. Hungry families in Detroit wait for hours at emergency food shelves. A beloved student, age sixteen, writes to say he has formally withdrawn from school. I continue reading: the aftermath of infernos in Australia, floods and swarms of locusts in Africa, drought in Greenland, heat waves melting islands of Antarctic ice more rapidly than ever before. Our top federal officials remain in a state of belligerent denial.

In the center of my chest, in the depth of my own heartwood, anger grips like a vise. I struggle to take a breath.

I close my laptop, wrap myself in a sweater and scarf, and walk into the woods, my heart on fire. Patches of snow, mingle with last autumn’s tea-colored leaves compressed on the forest floor. The woods dissolve, perspective flattens. All I see are swatches of color. The green conifers, white snow, and brown leaves fuse. Rage blurs my sight.

A tornado roars inside of me.

And then it happens.

My body expands. My throat releases. Powerful wails surge through me. To the thunderous cracking of sea ice, to the moans of dying whales, to the explosions of bush fires, I add the aching, grieving songs of a woman. Until I am empty. Until there is no sound.

Then I feel everything in and around me pause.

My heart softens. My vision sharpens.

In a dream-like state, I walk on.

Eventually, I find myself high above the vernal pool. I step off the path, walk to a wide log and lie down on my back. My spine releases into the cool, bone-hard log, not yet weakened from rot. Wind whirls, an occasional bird chirps, sun stipples bark.

I close my eyes.

Time passes.

When I open my eyes, a circle of white ash and sugar maple bow above me, their branches soughing, creaking, sighing, and murmuring in the wind. The many arms of each tree bend at their elbows as they dance and flow. The long trunk of the white ash closest to me grows in curves, like a woman’s body, so unusual for this typically straight-trunked tree. I lie beneath them, more tree than human. I open to their generous energy. In the sacredness of this grove, I don’t have to pretend that my heart isn’t breaking. I breathe deeply without trying, as if the trees breathe for me, giving me back my life, my strength.

In my dream, I was welcomed into the company of trees. Today I leave the bag behind. I climb up.

1 May, Beltane.

Snow fell throughout April this year, culminating with a thick snowstorm today, after the first three daffodils dared to open. I’d been watching them from the moment their thick, green, bullet-like heads pierced the winter-toughened soil. All last week, pale papery casings thinned as the yolky flowers plumped. Then several inches of snow fell like a dark shadow and pummeled the blooms. I watch this happen each May. Somehow, the daffodils yield and soften to the weight of the snow, just enough to survive. Tomorrow, next week, they will remind me they are alive.

Beneath heavy snow, the first trout lily leaves sprout, the flaming scarlet cup mushroom ignites, and the melting snow rings aureoles around the delicate striped petals of spring beauties like a corona. The ash borers wake.

15 May.

On this Day 57 of the quarantine, Glynn and I walk with our forester friend, Ginny, to the vernal pool high on our land. She is monitoring the pool as part of a state-wide study, which involves noting the number of ash trees that surround it. Most of the trees by the pool are sugar maples. We count just three ash trees. Then we focus on counting white salamander eggs the size of grapes, congealed in gelatinous egg sacks that float like snowballs in the pool. On the way back down, I tell Ginny about our Mother Ash Tree, the one by the gate, with the new shoots at her base, the one I’m worried is infested with the emerald ash borer.

“Those shoots don’t necessarily mean infestation, and certainly not death,” Ginny says. “They are a sign that the tree is weak. That’s all.”

Ginny’s knowledge of the trees in our areas is lifelong, broad in scope.

“It’s really about the understory,” Ginny says, as we keep our six feet of social distance from each other.

“Even if the standing trees die, their offspring, the seedlings, will grow up resistant, with new genetics. We have to look ahead at what the forest will be. The trees in these woods are strong, the understory beautiful. It doesn’t mean your trees won’t become infested. It is also not guaranteed that they will be.”

I look at the leaf litter, the brown duff of last year’s trees where patches of the ubiquitous scarlet cup mushrooms – tiny blood-red, vulva-shaped vessels – capture water droplets among brown leaves. Against last year’s death, they rise again and again and again. Our understory, the story that lies at our feet, in what we seed now, will mean resilience – or not – for generations of species to come.

On the way back down, Ginny bends over, and her long, straight white hair falls into her face. She picks a sugar maple sprout from the hundreds popping through the leaf litter, from the understory at our feet.

She holds up two tiny green leaves on a slender red stem.

She places the slip of a tree in her mouth.

“Do you ever eat them?” she asks.

I have never eaten one. I did not know that you could.

“Try one.”

I bend down, pick up a tiny tree, and place her on my tongue. Sweet at first, like the first droplets of sap I sipped from the maple two months ago. Then tangy. In the tree, I taste resilience, the yet- to-be-told under story of spring, of everything that we might imagine, of all that is to come.

About the Author

Anne Bergeron lives among trees in eastern Vermont and walks in the forest daily. She writes, teaches yoga, and works with teens at an independent academy. At home, she tends an edible landscape using permaculture practices, and raises chickens for eggs and sheep for wool. She views writing, teaching, gardening, and fiber arts as joyful regenerative practices for the earth.

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