Trees: a legacy and a future
By Barbara Lewis
When I was growing up in Honesdale in the 1950s and 60s, the borough was known as The Maple City. The brick mansion that now houses the Wayne County Public Library, down the block from my girlhood home, was then a home for the elderly called Seven Maples after the majestic specimens of sugar maples encircling its grounds. North Main Street was an attractive, tree-lined street with abundant shade trees, mostly maples, providing plentiful greenery in summer and gloriously colored foliage in fall. Throughout the town maples shaded sidewalks, yards and porches, a fact most of us took for granted.
After almost 30 years away from my hometown, I returned to Honesdale in the late 1990s to discover that the towering maples were disappearing one by one, the victims, we presumed, of extreme age. After all, according to a local historian, they had been planted when the streets were laid out, even before many of the houses were built in the 1890s, so they were well over 100 years old. Theyd lived out their natural life span, so it was time to take them down and replace them with more of the same, we figured. A local bank donated young maples and planted them along the streets, home owners had the old, decaying trees taken down and saw that replacement maples were put in. It was sad, but understandable.
What I began to notice, though, was that it wasnt just that the old maples that were dying; the young trees, planted 10 or 15 years ago, had also begun to show signs of stresstrees not leafing out in the spring, bark looking greenish. When I joined the newly formed Shade Tree Committee two years ago and began doing a tree inventory, the results were shocking. So many trees of all ages were slowly dying, partially, at least, the result of road salt and drought stresses, as I learned from my regional Penn State urban forester and local tree experts.
But I also observed that most of the dying trees were maples. In fact, almost all were sugar maples. No one talks about a maple blighttoo scarybut there it is, right before my eyes: the demise of the sugar maples. These strong-looking, sturdy trees have proved vulnerable to climate change and modern-day environmental stresses their forebears never had to withstand. Hasnt our country witnessed similar devastations in the past? The elms and walnuts are virtually extinctbut our sugar maplesbanish the thought!
In recent years a few brave souls have bucked the tide and planted other species. A few red oaks, flowering pears and spreading locusts have begun to dot the tree landscape in town, but they dont begin to make up for the number of sugar maples falling to the blade of the noisy buzz saws and wood chippers.
What to do? Face reality. Its time to diversify. Plant more of the Japanese Zelkovas or new hybrid, disease-resistant elms recently appearing in front of local businesses on Main Street, or put in a fast-growing ornamental fruit tree, like an apricot or a pear. Its a brave new world! If its a maple we must perpetuate, select a Crimson King, Norway or red maple in preference to a sugar maple.
Isnt this the age of learning to adapt? Weve had to consider hybrid and fuel-efficient foreign cars as an alternative to our traditional American comfort cars. Similarly, weve cut down on beef and other environmentally devastating foods in our diet, eating lower on the food chain and closer to home. Now its time to make another change: plant a new kind of tree. It takes courage and mindfulness to give up the legacy of our past and point ourselves toward the future. Whod have thought that planting a tree could have such significance?
[Barbara Lewis lives in her family home in Honesdale. She is a member of the Greater Honesdale Partnership Shade Tree Committee and writes about land protection for the Delaware Highlands Conservancy.]