Near the eastern edge of our land there is an old white ash tree. This relic of two previous centuries is about three feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall; a gigantic ash by anyone’s standards. The tree grew on a steep hillside. The difficult location was its salvation. It was too difficult to reach easily especially in the days of yoked oxen. The tree predates the companion forest; primarily eastern hemlocks that are about 80 years old. About 35 years ago while clearing land for pasture and our house I removed most of the hardwoods and hemlocks that were to the west of this tree. The old ash relished the new light that poured in from the south and west. It grew new branches, gained new height, and basked in its new found open area to the west. The tree is still well hidden from sight as there are saplings and shrubs hiding its base along the ecotone that provides a buffer to the forest.
A local logger, who was helping me at the time (skidding out some of the trees that I cut to be made into lumber for our house) told me he thought the middle half of the tree was likely top shelf wood, suitable for furniture or even ash veneer. He thought I could fetch a pretty good penny for the tree and offered to cut it down and take it to the mill. I considered the options and decided that this tree was a perfect seed tree and let it stand for posterity. It’s still there, only a fraction older in the life of a tree. I’m still here too, but way more than a fraction of my life has passed. During that time my wife and I finished clearing land, built a cabin, built a house, established gardens for a lifetime of vegetables, raised homestead animals including goats, cows, chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks, and raised a family. Our two boys are on their own now and we sometimes how we did it all. The ash tree seems happy as are we. Judging by the trees current state of health it will likely out live the both of us although we intend on giving it a solid competition in that regard.
White ash is one of three ash trees that we have in central New England. The other two are green ash and black ash. White ash prefers to live in upland hardwood forests that have good soils and adequate drainage. Green ash prefers wet soils, sometimes growing along the edge or even with the boundaries of a wetland. The tree does not live as long and is a little smaller. Black ash grows predominately in wetlands and is a medium size tree. The three can be easily confused. They have more similarities than differences. All of the ash trees have pinnate compound leaves. This means each leaf is comprised of five to nine sets of leaflets with one terminal leaflet (the number of sets can vary). The white and green ash leaflets are stalked, meaning they connected to the main stem by a short branchlet. The black ash has no stalk; the leaflets are connected directly to the main stem. The white ash leaf is dark green on top and a light (almost white) color on the underneath side. The green ash is green on both the top and bottom. All of these three ash trees have a deeply furrowed bark but the black ash may appear to be corky. The bark of the black ash also varies more in color displaying shades ranging from a reddish brown to a more common gray hue. For those of you who live in the Midwest there is another common ash called the blue ash. The inner bark of this rather unusual tree yields a blue dye.
On our homestead, part of a large mixed hardwood/conifer forest, there is a real variety of trees. We have sugar maple, red maple, red oak, white birch, yellow birch, black birch, hop hornbeam, black cherry, white ash, green ash, butternut, American elm, basswood, poplar, hemlock, white pine, red spruce, and balsam fir to name a few. The ash trees are certainly not one of the dominant trees in this part of the forest. This distinction would have to go to red oak, black cherry, red maple, sugar maple, and hemlock. Nevertheless the white ash trees are found in adequate numbers and make up an important part of the forest mosaic. Ash seed are called keys for their shape. When released they whirl round and round in a lopsided fashion toward the ground and can cover some distance before actually finding their home on the forest floor. Many birds utilize the food for seed as do some mammals. The ash tree is essential to our forest habitat. Its contributions are small but very significant; an interlocking part of the puzzle without which the ecosystem cannot be fully appreciated or understood.
Perhaps the most remarkable trait of ash trees is their resilience. These trees bend but seldom break. They give but seldom take. Their limbs stand stout under the weight of ice and snow only to reach for the sun again when sun light bursts buds and opening leaves celebrate the sun of each lengthening day. The flexible wood of the white ash tree is used for tool handles. It is often made into fine furniture. For those that use wood for fuel white ash can be burned green; the moisture content is only about 40% and can produce adequate heat immediately after cutting. Interestingly the black ash has a nickname: basket ash. Some of my ancestors, the Abenaki people, make this swamp dwelling tree into wonderful handmade baskets. The baskets are part of their traditional culture and were used to transport everything form furs to food in pre-European Abenaki culture. The few remaining Abenaki make black ash baskets to this day. This fine and wonderful basket makes an excellent replacement for a backpack. Fitted with shoulder straps in the traditional way these baskets are capable of comfortably carrying heavy loads.
Years ago while building out house I was standing on the second story rafters while Maureen and my friend Jeff fed me some large two by twelve pieces of hemlock that we were using for building the roof frame. It was autumn and the wind blew as I carefully hoisted the heavy pieces of lumber and carefully lined them up on top of the second story. There was a slight break in the action and I looked over the view in front of me. The old ash, its yellow and golden leaves back dropped by dark green bows of hemlock, had long branches that bent in the stiff breeze. For some odd reason I saw it as a symbol and took it forward in our life on the homestead. Through the years while raising a family in the modern world Maureen and I struggled with conflict between letting our children live normal lives and instilling wholesome values that reflected our homesteading life style. Time and time again we learned that like the ash we could bend and not break thus allowing our children to live in both worlds. It seems so obvious and easy now, but at the time it was difficult to have faith that this would work. Given the wonderful character of our adult children I can now clearly say that this method was successful.
On this day I am in a second story bedroom and I look across the field to the east. A recent heavy snow followed by an ice storm has hemlock branches weighted down waiting for a warm spell to shed the snow. The giant white ash stands alone, branches erect, enduring the long winter in anticipation of spring.
We are happy to have shared this land with this old white ash. Our short lives intersected perfectly with its persistence. Good fortune has remained with us all.