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Of elms and orioles

Bill Meredith

 “The hubs were of logs from the “Settler’s ellem;”
Last of its timber, they couldn’t sell ‘em,
Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery tips.” …Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858:
 “The Deacon’s Masterpiece”

“…they are soon cut off, and we fly away.” …Psalm 90

When I finished my Master’s degree in 1957, I had two job offers. One was at a college in a coal-mining town in West Virginia; the first thing we saw when we went there for the interview was a despondent miner sitting on a curb on Main Street, drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag. My wife had grown up in that kind of culture and she was depressed by the thought of living there. We then came to Emmitsburg for our second interview and drove down a Main Street lined with elm trees that arched out over our heads, and when we reached the square and turned toward the college we passed a functioning blacksmith shop near what is now the Carriage House. It was classic small-town America. We stayed.

The lot where our house now stands was a hayfield when we bought it in 1968, but it immediately began the process of ecological succession that would produce a forest ecosystem. The first trees to appear were mostly trashy colonizing species like mulberry, box elder, Tree of Heaven and silver maple, but scattered among them were elms whose seeds had blown in on the wind. They grew rapidly, over a foot a year, and quickly created what my grandchildren call “The Great Forest.” If things had been as they were when Dr. Holmes wrote of the Wonderful One-hoss

Shay, the elms would have dominated the area; but things had changed.
Around the time of World War I, elm trees in Europe began to die from a mysterious disease. It was found to be caused by a fungus that was transmitted from tree to tree by bark beetles. The fungus originally came from Asia, but it was identified in 1921 by a Dutch botanist, so it became known as “Dutch Elm Disease.” It was accidentally brought to America in 1931 in some logs that had been shipped from France to Cleveland, Ohio. From there it spread rapidly all over the country and probably got to Emmitsburg about the same time I did. By the mid-70s, when the young elms were flourishing in my field, most of the old trees on Main Street had died.

The elm was truly a noble tree; its record size may have been attained by the Sauble Elm, a Canadian specimen which reached a height of 140 feet, and was 260 years old when the disease killed it. Elms were ideal shade trees because their trunks branched repeatedly as they grew, resulting in a form that spread out like the spray of water from a fountain. Botanists, not generally known for poetic eloquence, refer to this growth form as deliquescent, a lovely, euphonic, mouth-filling word that actually sounds like the thing it describes. Despite this form, the species was sturdy and withstood storms without splitting, for the wood was extremely tough. Holmes’ description of its effect on axes and wedges was literally true; when the Sauble Elm died, a craftsman ruined three carbide router bits while making a coffee table from a slice of its trunk.

Most of the elms in my field died by the time they reached 20 feet in height, but one grew vigorously past the 40-foot mark, and I began to hope it might be resistant to the disease. But about three years ago I saw the tell-tale yellowing of leaves in the upper branches, indicating that the fungus was growing into the water-conducting cells of the trunk, and the tree was dead within a year. When I went to cut the lawn for the first time this spring I found a 30-foot branch had fallen into the yard; despite the wood’s toughness, it rots quickly after the fungus hits it.

When migration season arrived this spring we had several unexpected visitors at the feeder outside the kitchen window; there was a rose-breasted grosbeak and an indigo bunting, which had never been in the yard before. But the most surprising one was an immature male Baltimore oriole that arrived on April 12. It is not a seed-eater, so it usually isn’t seen around winter feeders, and it was far ahead of schedule, so it was having a hard time finding a decent meal. It was probably attracted by the crowd of other birds at the feeder, and seemed befuddled by the flurry of cardinals and finches bickering over sunflower seeds. It pecked at the suet cake for a couple of days and then wandered on in search of better things. Being inexperienced and so early in the season, I knew it probably wouldn’t come to a good end, but that’s the way evolution works, and I didn’t dwell on it. Instead, I started thinking of elm trees.

Orioles originated in South America, and when they moved north at the end of the Ice Age, they developed an association with elm trees. Because of the way elms grew, their smallest branches arched outward and hung down, and the orioles found that attaching their pendant, bag-shaped nests to the ends of these branches made their eggs safer from squirrels. As the elms died out all over the country, orioles had to shift to other trees, where their eggs and nestlings are more vulnerable to raiders. Biologists believe this is one of the reasons oriole populations are declining.

I hear orioles singing nearly every day when I am out in the yard or garden. Most of the trees in the area are maples and oaks; they produce quantities of edible seeds, and are full of squirrels all summer. So the orioles seem to be most active around the old sycamore tree next door, where they have nested for the last few years. It is a big old tree, probably 60- or 70-feet tall, and its branches are not graceful and pendant like the elms; but they do bend enough to hold an oriole’s nest; and the squirrels don’t tend to be in that tree very much. But the future is not bright; sycamores are also afflicted by a fungus disease, anthracnose, and while it does not kill as quickly as the Dutch Elm disease, it is spreading. The orioles may become like the octogenarian in the Psalm, soon to be cut off and fly away… except that they will have nowhere left to fly.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith