Dead wood, ashes.

One of Shakerag Hollow’s giant trees has fallen. An ash that until last week held its arms in the highest reaches of the canopy now sprawls across the forest floor, its body utterly torn. I’ll go back soon and “measure” things (how tall? what weight of wood came slamming down?), but for now: just awe.

I did not see the fall, but came by soon after. The trunk was … indescribable. Some grand words are needed, for barely imaginable violence had been at work. Rent asunder!? The whole wide trunk was twisted and split open, lengthways, in several long gashes. Other trees, themselves no mere saplings, were smashed into the ground. Large boulders were shifted as roots reared and cracked. The air was infused with the odor of fresh-split wood. An overtone of bitterness, like cut oak, but mostly a sweet smell, almost honeyed.

I found the tree in the morning and returned in later in the day for another look. As I stepped closer in the warm afternoon, I hesitated then held back. There were wasp-like creatures, big ones, swarming over one of the thick exposed roots. These insects were scurrying, flickering their wings, crawling over each other. A frenzy.

Black with bold yellow stripes. Buzzing as they flew. Had the tree fall unearthed a buried wasp nest?

Neoclytus caprea

But something was not quite right about these wasps. I moved forward slowly and saw their fat hind legs, too beefy for a wasp. Crickets? No. Then the wing cases, striped in black and yellow: beetles! Wasp-mimicking beetles of some kind. I moved to the side of the tree and saw hundreds of them, racing up and down the bark. They were on no other trees nearby. Half of the beetles were copulating; the other half seemed intent on colliding with the mating pairs. Even though I now knew that they were harmless, their waspy nature made me cautious. Even their short curved antennae were creepily hymenopteran in style (oh yes, those hymenoptera have style).

Who were they? To identify them, I spent some time in the online funhouse known as the Photographic Atlas of the Cerambycidae of the World. This is an amazing site devoted to a single family of beetles, the so-called longhorns (although many of them do not have long antennae). The family contains twenty thousand species, an impressive number when we remember that there are fewer than six thousand mammal species. Some of these cerambid beetles run afoul of humans when they bore into trees and wood that we’d rather they stayed out of. A few of them are “invasive exotics,” killing off native plants. But the beetles in Shakerag were natives: Banded Ash Borers (Neoclytus caprea (Say) 1824). They have an interesting life history, finding recently downed ash and oak trees, then laying their eggs in the bark. The larvae then chew on the wood below the bark, emerging next spring to start the hunt for a newly downed tree.

So I was not the only creature in Shakerag following my nose to the smell of ripped up wood. How many huge ash trees have fallen lately? Not many. Every banded borer within miles must have been at this party. Those flickering antennae are surely tuned to the chemical particularities of newly opened ash wood.

The beetles were one of the very first arrivals in the tree’s new existence. When a large tree falls, its ecological life still stretches out into the future. Perhaps half of the animals (and many more of the fungi) that the tree will nurture during its existence arrive after the tree has fallen. The ecological vitality of a forest can be judged by how may large trees are lying around, feeding beetles, hiding salamanders, growing fungi.

To paraphrase Mr. Faulkner, “Dead wood is never past, it’s not even dead.”


20 thoughts on “Dead wood, ashes.

  1. Pam Ruch

    Thank you for this story! I wrote about a similar story in on finding a pigeon tremex (horntail wasp) behind my house–ferocious looking yet harmless, and a testament to all the action goes on right in our back yards, that we rarely notice.

  2. David J Robertson

    Wonderful post, David! I can imagine my own cautious approach if I were to see the congregation of wasp-mimic beetles, too! Your description of the odor of the downed wood was perfect; it almost acted like “madelaines” for me, because we lost so many big trees–many of which were highly odoriferous oaks–that were rent asunder like your ash by Hurricane Sandy last fall.

  3. Gerald Smith

    “The ecological vitality of a forest can be judged by how may large trees are lying around, feeding beetles, hiding salamanders, growing fungi.” Indeed. And it is a measure of our ecological illness that we persist in “cleaning up” at every turn the debris of the forest floor, particularly about campus. In the rough areas of campus, even at the core, I think we should leave the fallen logs and branches in place and let the stumps rot naturally for the decades they continue to live with all the beetles and other life of the forest.

    The dependency of these beetles on ash trees makes me wonder how they are doing across the Domain: in the late 1920s or early 1930s the University entered into a contract with Blue Grass Hardware in Louisville, Ky. to supply ash for the tools Bluegrass was making. Ash was cut all across the Domain to supply this contract with Bluegrass. I have wondered if our expected species distribution and volume across the Domain does not continue to be affected by this very selective cutting 75 years ago.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with the Norse story of Yggdrasill but your post reminds me of it: Yggdrasill is the great, world anchoring ash tree of Norse lore that has its roots deep in the earth, shelters the human world in its branches, and has its boughs reach up to the heavens to embrace the gods. The roots of the great tree reach down to the wells that nourish the tree and through the tree all life. One of those wells that feeds the great ash tree is called “memory”.

    1. David George Haskell Post author


      Thank you for the Yggdrasill story. I looked into this briefly and was fascinated to see a story of a spear-wounded Odin hanging from the tree. The parallel to Christian images of crucifixion are obvious. The tree-of-life used as a vehicle of redeeming suffering? From an ecological perspective we might see the death and sprouting of the tree itself as the important image.

      Yggdrasill also appears to be a popular subject for tattoos. As far as inking goes, this is a good one, I think. I’d add a few birds in the branches, although with some honey-nymphs, the meliai, who apparently were fond of ash.

      Thank you for these fabulous insights and expansions of the theme.

      With best wishes, David

  4. Richard Mcdonough

    Many moons ago in Jamaica Plain MA my home office overlooked a giant Ash. My guess is a 7 foot circumference and a magnificent canopy. I sat there and watched it defoliate and die over a very short but sad time from a blight that had no remedies. It also was the year of the great stock market tumble, 1978.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Wow, this tree made an impression. It sounds like a beauty. I think I hear some remnants of its roots in your comment here. Sadly, the emerald ash borer is now continuing this work of ash removal. I hope that some will survive.

  5. batesvillian

    One day, the ash will be Shakerag’s version of a nurse tree. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the newly-opened canopy. Here in piedmont Virginia a couple of weeks ago, we had a foot of wet, heavy snow fall overnight. This time our property was hit harder than it was by last summer’s derecho. The pines — white and Virginia — took the brunt of the storm, with the white pines shedding ragged, snapped-off branches and many of Virginia pines bowled over at the roots, exposing five-foot rootballs. We’ll leave many of the trunks where they fell, but will have to grind up some of the big branches for mulch. One six-inch dbh cedar that snapped in half will make a nice dead snag. I’m looking on the bright side — the canopy openings will provide new planting challenges, and the rootballs will give me an excuse for a long-cherished garden folly — my very own stumpery.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      I’ll be following this ash for some time, so it will indeed be interesting to see who takes the gap in the canopy.

      Your storm sounds dramatic. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve suffered so much loss. Lots of borer and woodpecker habitat, but not a happy sight. The idea of a stumpery (what a word!) sounds like a great way to get some horticultural benefit though.

  6. Peter Thoem

    It sounds like there was nothing out of the ordinary about the fall of your Ash and it becoming a destination for Banded Ash Borers. But as you note the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) is hastening the demise of Ash. EAB is a seriously destructive invasive species. The first EAB arrived in Michigan some years ago originating in packing cases from Asia; they took a quick look at the American Ash species (all of the fraxinus species) and liked what they saw. Michigan, Ohio and Indiana are thoroughly infested with EAB and it’s spreading quickly through southern Ontario.
    Some wood lots around here (Toronto to the West end of Lake Ontario) are almost 100% Ash. Many of our streets are lines with White or Red Ash and in a decade or so they’ll probably all be gone! We will miss them, but maybe the Banded Ash Borers will help clean up.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Yes, these banded borers are native, but the emerald ash borer is, as you point out, a major problem. They have not yet arrived here, but they’ll be here soon. From what I hear they are leaving a trail of devastation. Not good: another tree species taking a major hit from invasive insects.

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