July 19, 2015


Minnesota, where I live, is a state that knows a thing or two about trees. We’re home to the world’s largest jack pine, the largest tamarack, and the famous Witch tree of Lake Superior! We are acknowledged experts in the control of and management of forest fires. With a forest products annual impact of a bit over sixteen billion dollars, we may not be the biggest and best – but we certainly know our trees.

We’ve learned the hard way what NOT to do with our trees. In the 1950s, because of aggressive beautification programs, Minneapolis had over 200000 elm trees. Thirty years later, because of an equally aggressive epidemic of Dutch elm disease, the city had lost half of those. Entire streets went from lush foliage and sun-dappled sidewalks to stump scars in a matter of months.

This happened because cheap trees and public pressure to plant them overwhelmed common sense – at least what appeared to be common sense to us now. Why would anyone in their right mind plant almost a quarter of a million of the same kind of tree? No one will ever know for sure, but it’s clear now that the decision led to the loss of tens of thousands of trees in Minneapolis alone. Similar planting practices elsewhere in North America and in Europe; on city boulevards and in the forests, led to an estimated toll of over 40,000,000 trees – a loss of aesthetic, cash, and effort spent in removing dead trees. The pandemic stripped France of 95 percent of its elms!

The first paper cited below lists a number of times at which Humans could have intervened to save the trees or ameliorate the devastation – opportunities that were missed and would have likely averted the arboreal disaster entirely. The number one intervention: “What could have been done in the 1950s or earlier to minimize the possibility of future elm tree losses in Minnesota? Most obviously, we first could have stopped planting elms. Elms in nurseries should have been destroyed and no new elms planted.”
What does all of this have to do with science fiction, Christianity, or writing for young people? Not much except as a cautious cautionary tale. Watching the redressing of long-standing wrongs with instant, concerted action, I’ve seen a weeding out of individuals who stand out or are different; people who are not enough like what we now understand to be “good”. Long after the damage has been done – long after the 40,000,000 trees are dead and gone – we’re making sure that...what? That the correct trees are planted, absolutely. But have we eliminated Dutch elm disease altogether? We have not. The fungus that struck North American trees came from the Netherlands and progressed across the continent from 1920s well into the 1960s. Then another strain of the fungus rode a shipment of wood from here back to Europe in 1967, further devastating their elm population.

We were quite sure it had been taken care of. Quite, quite sure. But the fungus that caused Dutch elm disease is still active, still dangerous, and while most of us rest easy now that the obvious symptoms are taken care of and an admittedly difficult battle is over, the war, as they say is far, far from won.

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