The spiritual nature of Queens

becomes apparent when you step along any residential street in South Ozone Park.

Shrines in front yards rule.

The air is heavy with mysticism, and the population’s diversity puts it ahead of the other boroughs, with large Italian, Hispanic and Guyanese populations, among others. You have to think there are some druids among them worshipping trees.

Yet some people hunger to have their ash trees taken down. Grandchildren gamboling, twigs falling on their heads. We oblige.

Their tree is on a list we get from the New York City Parks Department.

Others want their tree, but please prune it. Could you?

Others are dying to keep their trees, for the shade, for the beauty, the familiarity. They grew up with it! They don’t understand.

How did this come to be? Why is this block, 117th Street between 49th and 50th Avenues, lined with a bower of only mature ash trees that we are now systematically dismantling?

Piecing together the story while observing the bucket truck and chipper at work, I find out from residents that these trees were planted 30 or so years ago. 1990? They seem older. I heard that developers bought up whole blocks of these neat brick homes, intending to flip them, and the city required them to plant a tree in front of every home. Dutch elm disease had long before decimated the city trees of the past, and the green ash seemed to be a great, fast-growing substitute.

The ash had a graceful canopy and seemed immune to urban stressors. It didn’t die.

Until it did. Waiting in the wings was an invasive assassin. Foresters, scientists, arborists first noted the dieback two decades ago, and discovered that the beetle we know as the Emerald Ash Borer was to blame. It came from China on a cargo ship, went the theory. In the past two decades it has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees across half the continent

It starts at the tips of the branches. The beetle lays its eggs in the fissures of the bark, then the inch-long larvae crawl inside the tree, allowing pathogens to follow after them, and make their way down the cambium, eating as they go, basically destroying the tree’s digestive system. Their movements create an unmistakable hieroglyphic if you see the infested wood with the bark pulled away, what those in the scientific world know as “galleries.”

The damage done (and it is always fatal eventually), the new generation matures, exits the tree and flies off to the next victim. On a street like 117th, planted monoculturally, that is, only with ash trees, they’re all going to get it. Ash trees can subsist for two to four years in this weakened state. They still provide shade, some compromised beauty, and a habitat for birds. I found this egg today which had fallen from a nest above.

There is an effort afoot to treat them with chemicals or larvae-killing wasps. Here, though, they were the perfect tree for this street for thirty years. Go give one a hug before it hits the chipper. You won’t see them any more.

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