My husband and I have embraced our new life as climate refugees, fleeing from our beloved but fire-scorched Northern California back to our former home in Idaho. In NorCal, October had become a season of dread, every warm breeze sparking the fear of another wildfire, another evacuation, another litany of who’s lost their home, another grappling with the possibility that it could truly, this time, be us.
In our neighborhood here, October retains its traditional role as the dazzling demarcation between summer and winter. The air has cleared of wildfire smoke from the west and south, and for the moment the climate is behaving just as it should, the temperatures in a downward, invigorating declination. Rather than anxiety, October has ushered in a streetscape spangled with golden, russet, and bronze leaves. They drift in singular descents or spiraling flurries, jettisoned by trees that are serene in their release.
My favorites are the autumn purple ash trees. One of them holds forth right outside the window above my writing desk. As I tap away at my keyboard that tree is putting on an elaborate display, like a child showing off its new pajamas before toddling off to bed. Its inner leaves have turned a pale yellow, while the leaves on the outer branches darken in stages, the most exposed turning a coppery-wine color. Beheld from underneath, the whole thing glows like a lantern. This tree is one of two ashes we planted roughly ten years ago, and we are as proud of them as if we’d designed them ourselves.
But the news on ash trees is troubling. There are four species of ash in North America and all of them are vulnerable to two enemies that are advancing, slowly but inexorably, from the east. One is a fungal malady known as ash dieback; the other is an insect, the emerald ash borer. There are few if any practical or effective ways to defeat either, meaning that it’s possible the North American ash could go the way of the American chestnut or the Dutch elm. My cherished autumn view from my office, it turns out, may stop returning one year in the not-distant-enough future.
Knowing this frustrates and saddens me. I am attached to the promise of the next fall’s riotous beauty, and the next. Yes, there are other trees here that turn colors in the autumn, like the jaw-dropping flame maples and the golden honey locusts. But none of them have the multi-hued incandescence of the purple ashes. Besides, we paid a pretty penny for ours, planting them at a big enough size so that among the mature trees on our block they wouldn’t look like baseball bats with pretensions. We installed them, supported them with stakes and cables while they put down roots, guarded them against too much wind or sun until they were settled and strong. How can it be that I may have to say goodbye to the ash trees I’d had every expectation would be here at least as long as I would?
I’ve reached an age where many things I once regarded as sure things, as dependable and ever-present as the sky, have vanished with the passage of time. Some so slowly, like my youth, that it took decades for me to notice; others with merciless speed, like calamitous diagnoses or the sudden death of loved ones. Mortality is no longer a distant, theoretical prospect. I know, in a way I couldn’t possibly know at age twenty or thirty, that life is a swift journey through an ever-changing landscape, an event as ephemeral as a sandcastle. It makes no sense to clutch onto things or insist on certain conditions as though I, alone among mortals, possess the extended warranty on existence.
I get that, I do. But really, the ash trees? I’m supposed to just accept their demise without a fuss, because a mindless fungus or a ravening insect decide to colonize them? I don’t think so!
My outrage has no effect, neither on the bug nor on the fungus. And not on the ash tree, which blazes forth in full glory, holding nothing back for a future with which it is unconcerned. It ignores my useless, joy-throttling dismay while it goes about its stunning transformation. Whether it’s the last such transformation, or one of many to come, troubles the ash tree not at all. What will be will be. Its only occupation is now, and now is its time to let go.
I hear you, autumn purple ash tree. May I learn the poignant, magnificent lesson you offer me. Sleep well, my friend. See you in springtime, God willing.