Ash trees are the supernumeraries on the autumn stage. Sugar maples, with their brilliant reds and oranges, are the stars, with supporting roles played by bright yellow birch and tamarack and the scarlet of sumac. Willows are not spectacular in color but commanding and familiar to us in size and form, so we notice them daily. Amid the showier species, the ash often registers only subconsciously, but if all the ash trees were to be subtracted from the stage, how we should miss them!
The beauty of the ash trees’ color lies not in traffic-stopping brightness but in subtlety and range. Autumn always seems to my eye the most deliciously edible of seasons, and ash colors beg to be tasted, from creamy butterscotch tones through toast brown to pomegranate red. There are purples as deep and rich as the skins of plums and aubergines and tropical fruit colors, too--banana, pineapple, persimmon.
Many, many years of my life slipped by before I noticed ash trees at all. Belatedly but suddenly, or so it seemed, one fall I began noticing certain saplings by the side of the road. What were they, anyway? So lovely! Once they had caught my eye, I saw them everywhere. It took a while longer for me to notice mature trees with the same leaves, the same exquisite autumn jewel colors, but now I see them everywhere.
I know what you’re all thinking, those of you already savvy about ash trees. The dreaded emerald ash borer! Will the borers be the death of the species? Will the stage of the future be missing the contributions of the ash? Gene Logsdon, in A Sanctuary of Trees, has a more optimistic forecast. He notes, in his own woodlot,
...white ash trees that are dying all over the place from the emerald ash borer. I have enough dead ashes in my woodland to supply all the firewood I will need for the rest of my life. But when foresters and landscapers tell me to kiss the white ash goodbye, I lead them by the nose into my woods. Right along the path to the barn, there are two patches of ash seedlings—scores of them. I exchange greetings with them several times a day. They are my good friends. The tallest of them is about five feet now, growing slowly in the partial shade, the top sprig nipped off last winter by a deer, but none the worse for it. It is three years old and still only the diameter of my finger. Obviously it is not yet old enough to interest a borer. It will take six to eight years anyway for these seedlings to reach borer-food size, during which time the borers, running out of bigger ashes, will start to starve. I hope.
Nature does not hold still. Life does not hold still. Even without human interference, the landscape would change constantly, from one season to the next, one year to the next. It is our miraculous and unearned good fortune to live for a while amid our contemporary species, all of us just here for a while.