Old Ash

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.

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    What a tribute you have made with relating so many stories about this tree in your life. This honoring of a fellow living being is important to me, too. So glad to hear so much information about all the trees in your area. We have visited relatives in western MA so I can imagine this amazing forest. I think it is the Balsam when moist that provides one of the strongest scents that I remember from there. So different from our life zones on the Rio Grande rift in New Mexico. Thank you!

  • http://www.nc-mag.com/ Emma Springfield

    We call the seeds whirlybirds. When thrown in the air they whirl around like a helicopter. My ingenious granddaughter took a handful up to her second story bedroom window and tossed them out. They got caught in an updraft and floated around and showered the yard for quite a while. It was wonderful.

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com Jack Matthews

    Bill, you do know how to write. I want to be able in a few years to be able to describe the trees on our place like you have. I appreciate the symbolism that you and Maureen took from the ash. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Up there in New England, you have many more varieties than I do here on the ranch. Such richness and diversity. I truly have the image in my mind of you on the second story, today as well as yesteryear. I found it interesting that the ash can burn green. When Brenda and I went up to Santa Fe over Christmas, we bought a F-250 pickup load of pinion from our dependable Rios Wood Yard back behind the Geronimo Cafe on Canyon Drive. The grandson who now manages the wood yard said that when we come up next, bring a load of oak from our place and we will make an even swap, pinion for oak. We shall. I have a lot of windfall oak in the grove.

    I hope we are not dwindling, you and me and our families, amongst people that bring nature so closely into their lives and learn its lessons. I have a big oak in the grove I want to describe. First, gotta get me a field guide to trees. Thanks, Bill, and I look forward to reading more.

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    Another good story, and lots to be learned from it. Ash is something I am not really familiar with, but will look into it. I wish more parents would follow your and Maureen’s example. Family life would certainly be more pleasant.

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    It is so refreshing to see your understanding and respect and love for trees! There are a pair of very old Ponderosa Pines in our yard about whom I feel pretty much the same way you do about that old oak. I am humbled in their presence. Wonderful story for so many reasons!

  • bill

    If I live to be 100 years old I know I will never fully understand trees, however, I feel a particular kinship to them and respect their incredibly important contribution to our ecosystem We humans would do well to mimic their successes.

  • bill

    I have seen quite a few white ash in southern Maine Sandy-especially inland. Their should be some in your neighborhood, although perhaps not as many as would be found to the west of you. This is a wonderful tree you really should check it out. First to loose its leaves in autumn (or nearly so), last to get them in the spring.

  • bill

    Jack I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the writing compliment but I must say that I am a big fan of your writing as well. I particularly like how simply you express what you see, hear, feel. I was amazed by the recent events with your horses and felt as it I had known your for years. If I can experience that you must be a good writer.

    Thank you so much for reading. Oh, and by the way, what I would give for some fresh pinion nuts! Haven’t had any since the 70′s. You are so lucky to be near where pinion trees grow. The last time I actually picked them was on Sandia peak just west of Albuquerque.

  • bill

    I would have loved to have seen the whirlybirds floating about the sky! Your granddaughter sounds like quite the curious and inventive kitten!

  • bill


    If you remember the smell of balsam then you must have been in a high country area like the place where we live. Isn’t it interesting how we remember scents and relate them to people. places, and things?

  • http://writingsfromwildsoul.wordpress.com/ Wendy

    Bill, a friend of mine who has 500 acres in Vermont fought a losing battle with the utility company that came and cleared a powerline swath thru the edge of her land. She took some of the hardwood and had it made into flooring for her house, turning the devastation into a gift. She says now the wood scents her house and shines smooth and golden as the sunlight falls thru the windows. The boards seems grateful for the new labor and continued life. What a gift to be able to use trees from your own land for building your house. And thank you for telling the story of your old ash. She is indeed a symbol of your commitment to the land there. Do you know Bill Logan’s book “Oak, the Frame of Civilization”? We are the children of the forests as your Abenaki ancestors well knew. What will it take for us all to get this again? In time to save our trees.

  • bill

    What a wonderful story about turning trees into boards and continuing their life. I agree we humans need to get things right with our planet, not only trees but all that makes up Gaia.

  • johnbraeden

    Thank you for the
    article. A well-designed experiment.

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