The American beech tree bears an uncanny human semblance with its skin-like bark, muscular torso, and solemn, watchful eyes. The gray-blue bark, smooth as paper, so well preserves the razor’s trace of past loves and proud exploits, that from the word beech we get the Anglo-Saxon word for “letter” and “book.” The practice of scratching runes onto beech bark fixed the medium with the act of reading, so that reading became inextricably tied with the tree. By Shakespeare’s time, the paramour Orlando would declare, “O Rosalind! These trees shall be my books, and in their bark my thoughts I’ll character.” We were once practiced at reading beeches. Early European settlers in America learned that beech forest meant rich farmland and plenty of game, as passenger pigeons and turkeys descended in fall to feast on their nuts. The beech told of the past but promised the future. In Audubon’s famous illustration of a pair of passenger pigeons, painted while he was in Kentucky and besotted with his young wife Lucy, he placed his kissing birds on a beech bough during autumn; they crane their necks lovingly toward one another in an image of conjugal bliss and continued generation. Nothing seemed more natural. The thunderous pigeon flocks would never end, just as the beech forests would never end.*

Of course, we know what happened to the pigeons. The last of its kind was shot down by an unsuspecting boy; the rest persist in their twilit immortality as taxidermy specimens displayed under florescent lighting. The raucous flocks that once darkened the sky linger on only in the dim dusty halls of our collective consciousness. And what became of that breathing, rolling sea of unbroken beech forest? Naively, I thought: These trees will be here longer than we will be. Little did I know, the next chapter of the beech’s story was about to take a darker turn. Did I want to keep reading? Did I have a choice? It seemed that I had fallen in love with beeches just in time to learn what there was to lose.

As birders have “spark birds,” or birds that catapult something wondrous and previously hidden into the foreground, so should tree lovers have “spark trees.” One of the first trees I learned to identify was the American beech. Before, trees entered my awareness only when I needed shade and found it, usually in a sweltering parking lot, or when they arched over a city street.

All this changed when I met my husband. He owned a nursery—(the kind for raising plants, not small children). On one of our first dates, he asked if I wanted to pick up a plow with him in New Hampshire. The strangeness of this task was very exciting to me, as I texted my city friends, who understood the figurative use of this word (ahem!). At the pickup, I hung around awkwardly as he and the plow guy chatted about the “weed cultivator” (a marijuana start-up company?); “topsoil” (award-winning soil?); and “deer browse” (I imagined choosy deer circling supermarket aisles). Their brief exchange brought me back to my childhood as an English-as-a-Second-Language-learner, my brain firing up images in vivid, if absurd ways.

After completing the errand, we went on a short hike. It was December and the wind blew cleanly through the open woods. The whole place smelled like fresh snow on a wool jacket—as I described to him laboriously—recently spritzed with a pine or cedar cologne. At least, that was the closest analogue I could reach, with my synthetic, nature-deprived senses. Weaving our way down towards the ravine, I heard a rattly sound that I liked. What is that? We stopped and listened. Pleated, dun-colored leaves shook percussively on pale branches, and with each rush of wind, a lovely susurration followed in a soft crescendo. Shhhhhh. It was like someone running the tips of their fingers through your hair.

He said that these trees were American beeches—Fagus grandifolia—and that they were unique to the landscape because they held on to their leaves throughout the winter. He offered a new word—marcescence—for this dead-but-still-attached state. “Do you want to know another fun term?” (He knew he was dating a writer.) “The cone of juvenility. That means the tree holds on to its leaves in a triangular cone shape. See there, in the middle?” He pointed. Suddenly, I could see the phenomenon he was naming. What I took to be the outline of the tree was actually a ghostly inner tree of leaves, with the outer branches bare. Another pattern floated up to the surface like one of those posters of optical trickery. I saw branches splitting outward, recalling a satellite image of an alluvial fan. This branching mirrored the veining of certain leaves, he said—reticulate venation. And? I pointed. What was this leaf edge? Toothed. And what was that bark doing? Exfoliating. Basically, I was helpless for this kind of thing.

I have since learned that beech is one of the easiest trees to identify. In that sense, it’s the perfect spark tree, with a low, unintimidating barrier-to-entry. In the months that followed, I, former-tree-ignoramus, became a child again. “What’s that?” I’d yell during our afternoon runs. “What’s that?!” We would have to stop, and he would have to identify the plant or the tree, like my own personal iNaturalist app. Then I’d go home and read about it. One spring morning, I gasped. By this point I knew well the names of familiar species, but as much as I’d read, I had never actually seen beech flush its new foliage. It was psychedelic. The trees were all wearing hi-vis vests, studded with reflectors and shimmering wildly. It was like I was on LSD at a rave and the strobe lights were going. Splays of new foliage branched out laterally, energetically, one on top of the next like palms facing down in a team cheer. A week later, that breath-seizing, gut-punch neon mellowed out into a more composed and stable green. Summer arrived, and by then the foliage had deepened into such a lustrous, stately, heritage green—I thought of old billiard rooms with all the curtains drawn, cool and dark.

In the fall, the beeches transformed yet again. “What’s that!?” I muttered to myself one afternoon, looking up. I heard the clink clink clink of a million beechnuts exploding and falling to the ground, the blue jays screaming overhead, ecstatic at the bounty. I had recently begun “to bird” (a verb!) and identified in my binoculars that the nuthatches were also feasting away. Well, if it’s good enough for them, I thought, and bent down to inspect the beechnuts. I rolled several of them around in the center of my palm. It tickled. The outer covering of the fruit was brown and prickly, but opening up the husk, there were two, three pinched ingots of nut meat crammed inside. I put one in my mouth and chewed. It was sweet.

“Why, we might as well ask, not a plane tree, instead of a bo?” Annie Dillard writes in her nature writing classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I never met a tree that was no tree in particular.” Here, Dillard is puzzling over an important question in Christian theology, wonderfully referred to as “the scandal of particularity.” The problem is that Christ had to be born on a specific day in a specific place to specific parents, while also being God incarnate. Why bother giving God details? Is there any higher purpose in knowing that it’s a beech, and not just any old tree? I think that any ex-tree-ignoramus like me can understand that a capital T idea of a Tree does not allow you to truly love it, just like it’s impossible to love a generic God or a generic Man. No: you end up loving this man, the way he laughs at this exact joke, just like you love that exact beech over there around the bend, that one covered in steroidal folds of muscle like an overzealous body builder.

“The trunk is crudely etched with a filled-in heart, which makes me wince”—beech trees near the entrance of West Rock Ridge State Park. Photograph by Angela Chen.

For better or worse, my world began to fill with that pesky scandal: particularity. Now, I could say with some confidence that I loved the red mitten leaves of sassafras in the fall, and the way they smelled of root beer at the stems. I loved the improvisatory shapes of oak leaves, which could be assembled on the wet sidewalk like Matisse cut-outs.

But the trouble with loving a particular is to accept the attendant risk of mortality. I think often of Zadie Smith’s essay on joy, where she describes the everyday madness of falling in love. You can’t look into a child’s face, or your spouse’s, without simultaneously imagining their loss. But to stay sane and functional, you can’t think about that all the time, and must live as though their demise should never come. With love, “it hurts as much as it is worth.” As I paid more attention to the natural world, I began to realize that the same principle applied. To tune into the daily show of a sugar maple was to worry whether it was holding up okay in the drought. To thrill at the sight of bloodroot was to worry whether it would appear again next year, blooming as it was amid the thicket of garlic mustard. Paying attention provided endless rewards, but every day I was discovering new sources of grief. This was the bargain I had struck.

One spring day during the early stage of the pandemic, while walking in my local park in New Haven, I noticed a young beech with mysterious dark bands on its foliage. With the sunlight shining from above, I could clearly see the alternating stripes. At the time, I misread the phenomenon as leaf variegation, thinking I had stumbled across a rare specimen of beech. I geotagged the tree with the intention of showing my husband, but a few weeks later I saw another beech with the same interveinal discoloration, then another, then another.

Research led me to conclude that this was no genetic mutation, but rather, the signature symptom of beech leaf disease. Caused by an invasive foliar nematode (Litylenchus crenatae ssp. mccannii) and first detected in Ohio in 2012, the disease had swept east to Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, then northward to Maine, with astounding speed. It causes leaves to emerge damaged in the spring. Without working leaves, the tree starves, unable to photosynthesize.

“Defoliation is so severe it looks as though the leaves have melted off their limbs”—as the disease progresses, trees lose their ability to photosynthesize. Photograph by Robert Marra.

It’s only been three years since I first noticed beech leaf disease in East Rock Park, and already the defoliation is so severe it looks as though the leaves have melted off their limbs. Desperate to talk to an expert, I reached out to Dr. Robert E. Marra, a forest pathologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station who has studied beech leaf disease since it arrived in Fairfield County in 2019. His name was mentioned in numerous articles I read about the disease, but mostly, I reached out to Dr. Marra because he seemed like the type of guy who wouldn’t mince words. In a Power Point presentation of his that I dug up online, I was struck by his candid descriptions. “The 2022 BLD Hell-scape!” begins one slide, in drippy, horror-movie font. In my introductory email, I said that I was interested in his perspective as a scientist as he worked against seemingly unstoppable forces. I wanted to know how he was coping emotionally.

On a cool May morning, Dr. Marra meets me in the lobby of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES). He is wearing a tweed driving cap and a warm sweater-jacket, as the air still has a bite to it. Our plan is to drive together to West Rock Ridge State Park, where he often collects leaf and bud material to take back to the lab. We walk out to his car, a red hatchback stick-shift of unidentifiable make and model, plastered over in political bumper stickers that place him firmly on the left of the political spectrum. Before I get into the passenger side, Bob heaves a paper bag filled with nut bars into the back seat. He explains that he volunteers by ferrying unsold food to those who need it, making runs from the Big Y to the local addiction treatment center. “This is an environmental movement as much as a social justice one,” he says. He keeps this food in the front seat in case he sees panhandlers on traffic medians.

“Do you know about Atticus Bread?” he asks. Atticus is the upscale café-bakery in East Rock where you can buy things like a wood-handled Opinel foraging knife and nouveau-ethnic fare like frozen cheddar jalapeño pierogis topped with truffle chili crisp from Momofuku. Atticus is one of Bob’s regular unsold-food pick up spots. “The other day, I roll down the window and ask this guy, ‘Hey, you want this tofu banh mi from Atticus?’ He goes, ‘Hell no!’” Bob cackles. “Often people tell me, beggars can’t be choosers, but I think, hey, he’s just trying to preserve his dignity.”

I decide I like Bob immediately. During the drive, he’s telling me about this lady who dumpster dives illegally and how nobody can get her to stop. “She’s just great,” he beams. Supermarkets deter divers by throwing rotting cabbage in with the stuff that’s perfectly alright, Bob rants. “We’re feeding human beings! We’re not feeding pigs!” There is an irreverent impishness to Bob’s whole demeanor, which I had not expected from a forest pathologist. Not that I knew what forest pathologists would be like, but I had imagined that being around death and disease all the time would make one dour.

Paying attention provided endless rewards, but every day I was discovering new sources of grief. This was the bargain I had struck.

After we pull into the parking lot at West Rock Ridge, we head toward the coppice of beeches by the entrance. Bob had warned that we might not see any beech flush their foliage, both because of the disease, and because beeches are unpredictable. They can be “squirrelly,” and even healthy beech don’t flush all at once. Now we are about to find out. There is a “mother” tree here, about fifty feet tall, with many smaller trees underneath, either clonal sprouts suckering from the root system, or seedlings. When I look closely, I see the “mother” tree is in fact two trees, long since grafted together with a branch bridging the gap, like a couple with their arms around each other. The trunk is crudely etched with a filled-in heart, which makes me wince.

At this time of year, the canopy should already be filling out, but sunlight shines through the canopy, and I can see blue sky and the contrail of a plane passing overhead. Bob pulls down a branch from one of the younger trees, about eight feet tall. He says that last year, these trees were the last to exhibit symptoms. This year, there are some newly emerged leaves on the branches, but they look a bit curled and misshapen, like microwaved plastic. Bob puts a finger to the long, quill-shaped buds, wrapped in a hard brown sheath. Before pulling it off to show me, I notice him hesitating. “I hate to deprive this guy,” he says regretfully. Normally, new growth emerges from these buds, an entire branch with innumerable new leaves to photosynthesize, similar to the way a tiny, fingernail-sized embryo can grow into a full-sized adult. Without the bud, new leaves will not emerge; without new leaves, the next year’s buds, which develop at the base of the new leaf, do not appear. Cycle after cycle of this causes branch dieback.

“I’ll harvest this one, but it might not be viable anyway,” Bob reasons. Sure enough, the bud falls off without any resistance. He explains that some buds are so ridden with nematodes that they will simply “eject” or “abort.” We look down. The ground is littered with aborted buds, scattered among last year’s dehisced leaves that all have the disease’s “canonical symptoms.” In the litter, there are also husks of beech nuts. Since it takes up to fifty years for a beech to reach maturity and produce nuts, these trees have been there at least that long. I remember reading that stressed trees often produce a final crop of nuts before succumbing to death. With every step, the leaf litter crunches underfoot, and I wonder if these beech leaves, nuts, and buds will be the last of their kind.

I decide to step more carefully. We have to shout over the shriek of chainsaws from tree work that the parks department is doing somewhere. I look at the bud in Bob’s palm. I tell him that I simply can’t wrap my head around what nematodes are. Bob laughs. “Nematodes are an entire phylum, as diverse as the phylum Chordata, which we share with fish and tunicates,” Bob says. “A phylum! Imagine the variety.”

In other words, nematodes are as different from one another as a hagfish is from a peregrine falcon or a tiger. While it’s impossible to say what a nematode is, in essence, they’re worms. Placentonema gigantissima, a nematode that parasitizes blue whales, might be ten or fifteen meters long, while the majority of nematodes are microscopic and they’re not always parasitic. Nematodes can live anywhere: in soil, in leaves, in the intestines of other animals; from the ice of Antarctica to arsenic-poisoned Mono Lake. Maybe five or ten percent in total have been identified. It has been suggested that if you collected all the nematodes in the world, it might weigh the same as eighty percent of the combined weight of all humans.

Later, I will spend time with Bob at the lab, where we will look at L. crenatae under the microscope. He will float the leaf and bud material in water to encourage the nematodes to swim out. At first, with the naked eye, I see what looks like tiny motes of trembling dust in the water dish. Under amplification, the full horror of the invisible world comes into view. Worms. Worms. So many worms. They look like snips of colorless, translucent thread, but undeniably alive. The nematode’s signature move is to thrash, which they do vigorously, curling from a letter C to a bass clef symbol over and over again. They’re full of lipid molecules that they just burn up, thrashing until they find a carbon source. At the feeding end, they have a retractable stylet that is used to puncture the cell wall, and they emit effector molecules that cause the cell to expand. The nematode will feed at the site, using the stylet as a kind of straw, sucking up the sugars in the photosynthesizing cell. By the time the nematodes are through, the leaf or bud tissue is destroyed, either from their feeding or their movements. Under microscopic magnification, the cellular structure of a normal leaf looks like tubes of macaroni stacked vertically and horizontally, but with nematode damage, the cells look like smashed cardboard pulp.

Dr. Robert Marra pointing out new growth with signs of beech leaf disease and the small size of the buds. Photograph by Angela Chen.

Back at the forest: Bob says nematodes are an r-selected organism, meaning their evolutionary strategy is to produce massive amounts of offspring in the hopes that some lucky few will survive. L.crenatae females can recreate sexually by breeding, but also parthenogenically. In other words, they can make clones of themselves by laying eggs without male fertilization. The hatched juveniles feed, grow, and reproduce, the average life span lasting approximately two weeks. By the end of the summer, some leaves have been found with as many as 50-60,000 nematodes crammed inside. In a microscope image in which the worms are dyed pink, the image looks entirely pink, with hardly any leaf tissue visible.

If one finds these numbers staggering, their resiliency is equally hard to believe. “These nematodes are tough,” Bob says. “They have been found buried under layers of leaf duff, under snow, and successfully revived in the lab! They can survive the intensely cold temperatures we’ve had this past winter. You can centrifuge them for 30 minutes and when you look down on them through the microscope, they’re still swimming off the pellet. That’s 20,000 rpm! We could not survive that.”

All this is part of the ongoing, working story on how the nematode persists and spreads. Bob paints the following scenario: Imagine that it’s late summer, with nematodes crawling all over each other in the leaf. It’s crowded. It’s becoming harder to feed. Those at the exit desperately need to get out. Some do fall out. Then, there is a rain event. Water splashes down on the leaves, and the nematodes quickly emerge from the stomates and travel in water, thrashing and thrashing. Some might get picked up by an insect, like a leaf hopper or a spider mite. Others might get picked up by a squirrel’s tail, or a bird that is able to fly for miles across water. Beech leaf disease has been found on islands like Fisher’s Island, which seems to support the theory that the nematodes must be hitchhiking on bird’s feet, but Bob says that at this point, it can be assumed that these nematodes are sticking to anything that happens to visit a beech tree.

“But there’s a lot we still don’t know. We still don’t know how L. crenatae arrived. We still don’t know exactly how it spreads, even if we can hypothesize. To find out, we would need to be trapping birds and banding them and washing their feet. And washing the tails of squirrels. Can the nematodes fall to the ground but then climb up a tree? We can’t band a nematode to see where it goes.”

He notes that the beeches are also doing something that has never been witnessed before in beech. In response to the defoliation, they are sending out a “second flush” of leaves, which sprout in unexpected places, such as directly from the branch or trunk. These second flush leaves are lighter in color, without the signature toothed edges. Bob says that these leaves “never look quite right.”

All of this information is mind-boggling. I suddenly start to see the forest with nematode goggles. They’re simply everywhere, maybe even writhing on my hands, where I had brushed against the leaves. We continue hiking up the trail, following the path of the creek. Bob tests the branches by bending them slightly to see if they’re still alive. Dead, snap. Dead, snap.

“This tree is not going to survive,” he says. “There will be root dieback as well. In a stressed tree, fungi in the soil will start to degrade the wood. It’s equivalent of a dead tree standing. Oh, wait. There’s one little leaf. One.”

Here, I ask Bob: What would further beech decline mean for the ecosystem? Again, Bob emphasizes that we simply don’t know. We don’t have a precedent for this kind of foliar nematode for trees. Beech is a common denominator in so many of our Northeastern hardwood forests, and plays a unique role in the forest that can’t be quickly replaced. Without beech mast, the bears, porcupine, blue jay, and grouse will lose a major caloric source. And the hundreds of caterpillar species that rely on beech, such as the early hairstreak caterpillar that can only feed on beech leaves, will essentially disappear.

I press Bob further here—yes, sure—but what would this mean? I am hiking behind him so I can’t see his expression, but there is a beat of silence. We both know that mass tree-mortality events have been on the rise around the globe, a percentage of that due to invasive pests. In the west, bark beetles have affected millions of acres of forest; across North America, the emerald ash borer will likely to destroy all eight billion ash trees; the wooly adelgid is ravaging hemlock forests as we speak. Now there is a new pest on the horizon, the elm zigzag sawfly. What would it mean if all the trees we love simply—die?

Bob turns around and shakes his head. Unfortunately, he’s a scientist, not a political forecaster—it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what’s going to happen. But he ventures diplomatically that, undoubtedly, the composition of this forest will change. He shows me what some of those changes might be: In the sun pockets, we see young sassafras reaching toward the gaps, and tulip poplar shooting up. The shade-loving mountain laurel won’t do well, but witch hazel is doing okay, which reassures him. This forest is still relatively healthy, but in parts of Fairfield County, the understory is solid green with invasive barberry. Bob stops before a black birch to say that birches will likely increase; deer don’t like to browse them due to their wintergreen smell. In the past, wintergreen oil was distilled from the bark, and the wood was commonly used as veneer for furniture, since it could be made to resemble woods like walnut or mahogany. He shows me a canker-covered birch that looks like it has been blasted with a bazooka. Obviously no good for veneer.

“We don’t want to acknowledge what we’re seeing”—Bob Marra. Photograph by Angela Chen.

For now, the nematodes aren’t Bob’s only concern, far from it. “You know what I’m most scared of?” Bob says. “I’m terrified of oak wilt. It can kill in a season. It’s knocking on our door. In Texas, which has some of the highest diversity of oaks, they’re really struggling with it. Municipalities spend millions of dollars every year to trench around the tree, because it can spread through the root system. We can’t do that kind of work in Connecticut, with our rocky glacial till. The trenchers couldn’t handle it. Tree wardens have already reported oak wilt in Long Island, Brooklyn, Albany. It’s here. We never learn our lesson. By the time we ID the threat, it’s usually too late to control it. If we lose our oaks, I just don’t know …”

As we walk and Bob continues pointing out what he sees, I think of the relative, merciful ignorance of non-specialists. Where he sees cankers and nematodes and pathogens, the common hiker sees only “nature.” Aldo Leopold often lamented humanity’s seeming impotence in battling invasive species that we ourselves have introduced, especially because we have no ability to see the difference. He wrote in the first, unpublished foreword to his 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the mark of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

I must also be one of these laymen who explicitly “does not want to be told otherwise.” By reaching out to Bob, it was as though I had rushed to the doctor expecting to be met with a benign diagnosis or at least with curt dismissal, waiting to be told that, in fact, I’m healthy as a cow. But in this situation, Bob is telling me that it’s worse than I could have imagined.

On any normal day, I tack my survival on the hope that resilient new species will fill the gaps to thrive in the hostile environments of our creation. In the city, mulberry seedlings shoot up through concrete; Ailanthus livens up the desolate, trash-blown margins of rail yards. This distorted urban ecology is still an ecology, and one that should be embraced. Right? Perhaps I came searching for the scientist’s perspective with a childish desire to be told some version of this comforting bedtime story. But now I realize that ecological change is easy enough to embrace in the abstract, but the actual experience of loss is another thing entirely.

Nematodes recovered from beech buds. Microphotograph courtesy of Paulo Vieria, USDA-ARS Beltsville, MD.

“The speed at which beech leaf disease is moving through the East is shocking!” Bob nearly shouts. “Six years ago, if you’d asked me if our beeches were okay, I would have said, yes, they’re doing just fine! Now, it’s possible we’ll lose this. All of this—” He makes a grand sweeping gesture. “We don’t want to acknowledge what we’re seeing. Our forests are slow-motion crashing. Twenty years ago, we would have had to talk louder. We would hear birds, insects! I’m 67. This is within my living memory. I remember there used to be so many warblers here, I’d be so frustrated thinking, please! One at a time! I can’t identify you. Now, I hear one small Tennessee Warbler. Otherwise, it’s silent.”

We stop to listen. I hear the steady roar of the Merritt Parkway, and the buzz of chainsaws.

“It’s like we all have our heads buried in the sand.”

I stare beyond the trees, trying to unsee what I now see. Bob says the nematodes are essentially “soiling their beds.” It’s not a good evolutionary strategy to kill off your only host, yet that’s what the nematodes are doing. We are talking about nematodes but I can’t help but think of Homo sapiens and our own relentless chomping up of resources. We might end up following the same fate, soiling our beds, destroying everything that gives us life.

“Yeah. People ask me if I’m depressed sometimes. I’m like, sometimes? How about all the time?”

A flock of blue-black grackles sails across our vision in a diagonal configuration through the woods. Their iridescent shapes animate the hidden space between the trees like tatters of fabric. “I miss the winters we used to have,” Bob says after a while.

“Just don’t make me wear a lab coat, like the TV crews always want me to do!” Bob exclaims when we arrive back at the lab, after I tell him I’d like to take some pictures of him “at work.” Science is to be conducted while wearing regular clothes. We have returned to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, where Bob does the daily work of DNA fingerprinting to try to develop theories on pathways of spread. Bob would like to determine whether there was one introduction, or several. The data, for now, show that it’s not all clonal reproduction, but it’s also not highly diverse. Which indicates that, at least with these data, the nematodes are closely related. But there’s still so much sampling to do. Science is a routine grind, the repetitive motion of putting this thing into that thing and spinning it and logging it: rinse and repeat. Time is a resource that’s finite. Bob doesn’t join the mass exodus out of the office at 4:30. He desperately needs another technician.

In between microscope slides, we chat about the conflict in Ukraine, the rogue generals launching Sudan into a civil war, the lectures of Timothy Snyder on the rise of fascism. Everything in the news is terrible.

“But how do you rationalize to yourself what you’re doing, when the going is so slow?” I ask.

Bob leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, a thoughtful expression falling over his face.

“We don’t have forest-wide ways of dealing with disease. So, what are we doing? I think that we’re historians. What we can do is document what we’re seeing, so we can better understand this process. If there’s a next time, then maybe there will be all this research already.”

On our human time scales, we refuse to acknowledge that something can’t be done, that solutions can’t come faster.

On our human time scales, we refuse to acknowledge that something can’t be done, that solutions can’t come faster. Back home, I begin reading a history of the American chestnut (American Chestnut, by Susan Freinkel). If we can’t know the future, perhaps we can read about the past to extrapolate some common themes, to compare and contrast. What happened the last time a beloved American tree faced such a threat?

The storied chestnut was America’s “perfect” tree, representing both a livelihood and a way of life. When the blight arrived, the government mobilized tremendous resources to try to save it. However, while all agreed that something had to be done, there was no consensus on what that “something” should be. William Alphonso Murrill of the New York Botanical Garden led a coalition of scientists who argued that the path forward was to continue collecting more data. Another faction of scientists, politicians, and action-minded industry professionals demanded more aggressive measures. The standoff between the dueling parties came to a head in Pennsylvania, where the Commission decided that the way forward would be to cut down every single chestnut, sick or healthy. In retrospect, perhaps some of the chestnuts would have developed immunity, and survived.

The rest is history. The blight burst through quarantine lines. A plant pathologist, George “Flippo” Gravatt, was put in charge of the Chestnut Blight Laboratory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg—a thankless job, where, for three decades, during the prime of his career, Gravatt was “one of the chief chroniclers of the tree’s sad, slow demise.” He “bore witness over the years to a steady march of destructive invaders,” Freinkel writes, which included pine blister rust, spongy moths, and Dutch elm disease.

I wonder about a life spent chronicling death. It’s like that question posed by German writer Judith Schalansky’s book, Inventory of Losses—who is closer to life? The person who thinks about her mortality all the time, or the person who manages to suppress all thought of it? Gravatt’s sense of duty to witness reminded me of what Bob said about his job as a historian. From the vantage of three decades, a single human generation, what he’s doing might seem utterly hopeless, and closer to death than to life. Yet, a hundred years after the fact, Gravatt’s work was clearly valuable, a gesture towards life. At this jump, we actually can think more in the timescale of a tree, or a forest. There is more hope today than there was a century ago, with continued breeding programs and, yes, more data. Perhaps, one day, the blight will be weakened enough from its own virus that the chestnut sprouts will finally make a comeback, as predicted in Robert Frost’s poem “Evil Tendencies Cancel”:

Will the blight end the chestnut?

The farmers rather guess not.

It keeps smouldering at the roots

And sending up new shoots

Till another parasite

Shall come to end the blight.

An appropriate addendum to the poem may have elaborated that the farmers—or those who witnessed the decline firsthand—wouldn’t be around themselves to see the rebound.

All summer, wildfires burn and beech trees die; I shut my windows against the smoke; I move words around on a page; I play with my son at the playground; we eat dinner and take baths and go to bed. Scientists are modern-day Cassandras; most of us can’t bear to hear them declaim the endless daily tragedies that seem beyond our control. As for me, I even avoid thinking about the roof gutter that needs to be replaced. A torrent of rainwater pours over the brownstone façade during every storm, seeping moisture through the cracks. It’s a big job that will require the hiring of reputable contractors, and we just keep kicking it down the road. Fixing it necessitates the leveraging of present pain against future pain. It occurs to me that if we can’t even deal with basic repairs in our home, what hope do I imagine for the planet? Perhaps we truly are as shortsighted as nematodes. But the instant I go outside, I feel immediate joy upon seeing the brown sandstone blooming with life after rain. A miniature forest of mosses has sprouted overnight, a glistening fairy world. Life and decay. It’s all here.

I call Bob to see what’s going on; to hear the latest in beech tree news. Since the last time we chatted, Bob has begun to brainstorm ways of engaging land trusts to deploy a polyphosphite treatment that researchers in Ohio have demonstrated can enable trees to protect themselves from nematode damage and preserve fairly healthy canopies. They still don’t know how the treatment works, but the effort might preserve genotypic diversity, he says, because the classic problem with species saved from the brink of extinction is that they end up in a “bottleneck,” representing only a sliver of the original population diversity.

“It’s because people kept asking me, what can we do, what can we do to help you? It’s so hard to turn people away, but it’s not like you can come help me in the lab. It’s horrible and we’re heartbroken, they say. Well, then let’s all think what we can do.”

Bob says that even though saving individual trees seems like a daunting task, if you divide up the work, then it’s not so bad. What if volunteers could, with his help, identify individual trees they’d like to save, then apply the phosphite soil treatment twice a year? These citizen scientists would be tasked with monitoring the plots and collecting data.

“We’re not going to give up,” Bob continues. “We’re just being realistic about outcomes, but we’re not going to give up. When you get a group of people together who care and can think creatively, they come up with solutions….” Bob is referring to the beech-leaf-disease working group that he’s a part of, and the many land trusts mobilizing people who care. “This idea of the soil drench is getting people excited. It’s not meaningless and it’s not purposeless either. So, let’s just see where it goes.”

One world might be ending, but in the meantime, there’s still so much left to do: food to ferry around to the hungry and needy, children’s music concerts to attend, and buckets of phosphite to pour into the soil. At the very least, I can do that and help others pay attention to nature too. Love will need to be a necessary part of this equation, that much I do understand. It’s like that parable inspired by Loren Eiseley about throwing starfish back into the sea. Does it make a difference? the narrator asks the young girl throwing yet another starfish back into the sea. Well, it made a difference for that one, she says. From the perspective of at least that one—one forest, one stand, one beech—perhaps our love won’t have been for nothing.

Anelise Chen is Director of Undergraduate Studies in Creative Writing at Columbia University, where she is part of several working groups exploring history and storytelling through plant life.


*Etymology of “beech,” Shakespeare reference from the play As You Like It, and information on the relation between Fagus grandifolia and the passenger pigeon is drawn from Peattie, Donald Culross, “The Beech and the Pigeon.” The Atlantic, August 1948.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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