Look Who’s Saving Elm

Without question, the dinkiest plant in my garden these last few seasons has been the American elm tree my father-in-law gave me three years ago. I realize that “dinky” is not a word often attached to elm trees—”graceful” or “venerable” or even, in recent years, “dead” are a lot more like it. But there is no getting around the fact that the leafless, 14-inch chopstick that arrived in the mail from the Elm Research Institute in Harrisville, N.H., was a poor excuse for a tree. Swaddled in a sheet of The Manchester Union Leader, it had not even a single branch—just a couple of bud-eyes at one end and a straggle of root hairs at the other.

I had formed a somewhat grander picture of my tree when Roy had first called to tell me it was on the way. He’d read a magazine article about the institute’s American Liberty elm, a new strain bred for resistance to Dutch elm disease, the fungus that has brought down so many of America’s elms over the past 60 years, and he thought I might like one. In the days before its arrival, I deliberated where in my yard an elm tree should go, and imagined its trunk climbing swiftly beside my driveway and then, as is the habit of American elms, opening all at once its tall, leafy canopy.

What showed up, however, was far too delicate a thing to plant out in the yard. There are blades of grass around here taller and sturdier than this little whip; planted in the open, it was sure to get trampled. So I decided my Liberty elm would spend its formative years in the safe and luxurious confines of my perennial border, where it could be cosseted like a delphinium until the day it was ready to face the real plant world. There the elm has thrived, this season finally lifting its skinny shoulders above the neighboring day lilies and caryopteris. True, a tree whose height is still measured in inches (39) and whose leaves can still be counted (73) may not be much to brag about. But I’m taking a long view. Nursing this skimpy sapling along is the part I can play in the effort to restore the elm to the American landscape.

The fate of the American elm has been bound up with that of our civic culture almost from the beginning, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought elms out of the wilderness and installed them on the Boston Common. Ever since, and right up until Dutch elm disease struck in the 1930’s, the American elm has been the tree of choice for American parks and campuses, for New England commons and Civil War battlefields, and for the best streets of our cities.

There is something about the very form of these trees that seems to imply public space, in the same way that a weeping willow implies water, or a great, old gnarled oak seems to uphold the authority of tradition. If this sounds sentimental, consider that long before we embraced the elm, the Indians favored its shade for tribal councils. No doubt the unusually high canopy has something to do with the tree’s exalted civic status: an elm commits to a branching pattern much later than most trees, with the result that the vault formed beneath its canopy is as grand as a train station’s, more conducive to encounters with strangers than intimates. (By contrast, beech trees form ideal spaces for marriage proposals.) Moreover, the elm’s typical branch pattern can legitimately be described as egalitarian. After the tree’s long, straight ascent, it divides into four or five boughs of more or less equal status: unlike most trees, the elm manages its affairs with no main leader.

And then there is the fact that even the oldest American elms somehow never look old. This is no burled, brooding or backward-looking tree, but a soaring, optimistic one, eminently confident, youthful and sociable. For as impressive as elms are singly, a whole street- or squareful of them, twining their arching canopies overhead to form the most perfect roof in nature, is enough to make one feel civil, even neighborly. If some trees encourage romance, and others solitary reflection, the American elm seems almost to foster republican sentiments.

Now, I realize this is an unfashionable, even politically incorrect, way to talk about trees. These days, we’re told we must value nature on its own terms, overcome our anthropocentrism. In the classic environmental narrative, a species like the elm, or the whale or spotted owl, suffers under the attentions of civilization until the moment we recognize the evil of our ways and step back, giving the species time and wild space enough to recover. But it turns out this narrative doesn’t fit the story of the American elm very well, which perhaps explains why we’ll never hear an environmentalist raise the cry “Save the elms!”

It is true that civilization bears responsibility for the tree’s parlous state. The European elm bark beetle that carries the spore of the Dutch elm fungus came to Ohio in a load of European elm logs destined to be made into furniture. Yet now that the beetle is here, communicating the deadly fungus from treetop to treetop rapidly as rumor, it’s not enough for civilization simply to leave the elm alone. Doing nothing, or very little, has brought us to the point where mature American elms are nearly as exceptional in the landscape as mountain lions or eagles. But unlike these species, which will survive precisely to the extent civilization is willing to cede them wild ground, the best place for an elm today is, ironically, in the very bosom of civilization. How do we square the classic environmental narrative with the fact that one of the last great stands of American elms is not in Yosemite or the Cascades but in the middle of Manhattan?

How many last great populations of anything in nature—apart from rent-control tenants or speakers of Yiddish—can be found in Manhattan? Though it might discomfit the Greenpeace type to hear it, several thousand of North America’s greatest remaining elms survive in Central Park and along Riverside Drive and in Tompkins Square Park precisely because of civilization’s attentions and sentiments. Neil Calvanese, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, says Manhattan’s elms enjoy advantages elms in the wilderness would (and do) die for: since virtually all the elms in Manhattan are publicly owned, they receive a level of surveillance and care elms in nature (or even in the backyards of Brooklyn) do not. Infections are diagnosed early and trees are promptly pruned; dead trees are cut down before they become a breeding ground for elm bark beetles.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently, Manhattan was losing its elms at an alarming rate. After the most recent round of cuts in the Parks Department budget decimated tree crews, the annual toll started to climb, until the annus horribilis of 1992, when 32 big elms came down in Central Park. Last year’s casualties galvanized the friends of the elms, however, and under pressure from people like Calvanese and Pat Sapinsley, of the Riverside Park Fund, the city scraped together sufficient funds to beef up tree crews and attack the problem. This year, only eight mature elms were lost in Central Park. Natural cycles account for some of the improvement, but there seems little doubt that, more than anything else, it is civic-mindedness that is saving this most civic of trees. Perhaps the reason environmentalists haven’t cried “Save the elms!” is that the slogan has a corollary: “Save the cities!”

So it looks as if it’s going to be the city lovers, more than the nature lovers, who will save the elm—parks people, civic-minded types and people like my father-in-law. Which only seems right. Nature, after all, would not miss the American elm half as much as we would. It is probably just coincidence that the decline of the elm has proceeded simultaneously with the decline of the public square in America; we seem to have lost the knack of building the sorts of places where elms belong. (Where exactly do you plant an elm on a modern shopping strip or at a mall?) But if we’ve forgotten how to make attractive public space, the American elm certainly hasn’t. Is it too much to hope that the revival of the one might in some way help bring back the other?

Probably. And yet the space formed by a mature elm does make a powerful argument, one that can hardly be missed on a walk down Central Park’s promenade. Indeed, a recent visit to the park has me wondering whether my yard really is the best place for a Liberty elm to spend the next century. For one thing, the tree’s fine shade is apt to attract a crowd; it’d be wasted on a piece of private property. Also, should Dutch elm disease ever strike my tree, I doubt I could provide the necessary care. So this is what I’m thinking: As soon as my elm attains a bit more stature, I’m going to see if I can’t persuade the city of New York to adopt it.