The Resurgence of the American Elm

CVNP Bedford Reservation Mid-Section

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been hearing about the death of the American Elm. My copy of The Sibley Guide to Trees says, “Elms were primarily valued as ornamental trees in parks and along boulevards before the advent of Dutch elm disease. Thought to have originated in the Far East, it was first identified in North America around 1930 and spared rapidly. A new and more deadly strain appeared in the 1960s and continues to spread. Fungi carried by beetles cause the trees to block its own tissue, essentially choking itself to death.” It’s been a lament of naturalists for decades, long before David Allen Sibley. It’s always about the boulevards and the “graceful” shape of the trees’ canopy, or about the extra color that the American Elm used to add to the fall foliage… but now adds no more. The lament has been so long and loud and consistent that I’ve come to associate the American Elm with words like “decimation” and “extinction.”

I’ve known that it’s not completely dead. In fact, I’ve known that there are even some large specimens surviving right here in northeast Ohio (as you can see in the picture at the top of this post, which I took a few years ago in the Bedford Reservation at the north end of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park). Even so, I’ve carried a strange sadness about the American Elm: yearning for what once was… regretting the ways that industrialization and globalization have robbed our world of its natural beauty… hoping against hope for the resurgence of the American Elm.

Elm Wood Grain

My love for the American Elm has grown, even through its period of decline. My wife has taught me, as one who likes to bring new life to old furniture, about the remarkable moiré patterns of the wood grain in Elm lumber. The Sibley Guide to Trees says, “Elm wood was once important for specific uses, such as chair seats, because it tends not to split, but it is rarely used commercially today.” From what I gather, this specificity and rarity makes American Elm wood even more desirable among furniture afficionados.

Also, after I started learning about the American Elm — and after acquiring my copy of The Sibley Guide to Trees a few years back — I learned how to identify the American Elm. The leaves’ rough surface and jaggedy, saw-toothed edges are actually quite striking, once you get to know the look and feel of them. The American Elm really is a beautiful tree. One worth conserving, reviving, and protecting from disease.

But here’s something crazy: this Spring I’ve been noticing way more specimens of the American Elm than I ever thought I’d see, growing right here in northeast Ohio.

A Quick Walk through the Jessie Smith Nature Preserve

I’m not just talking about the 80-foot-tall giants with plaques urging us to “Save the Elm!” — like the one in the Bedford Reservation. There are several of them crowding the westernmost segment of the Portage Trail, growing right at the edge of the forest, across from the meadows on the opposite side of the trail. Granted: the trunks of these trees are relatively small, ranging from the size of my wrist to the size of my thigh. Still, I’ve found my heart stirred by this apparent resurgence of the American Elm in my own neighborhood. Just last Friday, I was just hiking in the Silver Creek Metro Park, on the far side of Summit County, and I discovered there were several American Elm trees — even groves of American Elm trees — growing in the forests there. Some of these were even quite large, with trunks approaching the size of my waist and branches soaring forty or fifty feet in the air.

Silver Creek Metro Park Bridle Trails

Sibley acknowledges that the American Elm is “Still common as a small tree, and some large specimens survive in towns and cities.” So maybe I shouldn’t let myself get too excited. But there’s just something stirring about the realization that something is not nearly as dead as everyone has been saying for the last several decades.

It feels like the American Elm could be a powerful metaphor. My mind immediately leaps to the Church, trying to find its way forward in a new era, proclaiming Christ in Post-Christian contexts. But it feels like the metaphor could be applicable to a lot of other contexts, as well: like a city or a country that’s been decimated by war… or a generation dealing with extraordinary challenges… or maybe even the global climate crisis, writ large. We can so easily catastrophize, assume the worst, and leave the thing for dead. But maybe not all hope is lost. Maybe we can hope for a resurgence of the American Elm. Among other things.

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