In spite of sauna-like conditions yesterday, I spent an hour or so cruising the woods around my house looking for a nice, straight ash tree. I want to cut one down so I can split it into staves to make longbows.
Some of the several dozen ash trees I examined were dead. Not a single one was in good health. Most had lots of dead branches, and the live branches had only a fraction of their normal foliage.
I first noticed our ash trees dying three or four years ago. I was afraid they might have emerald ash borer, a forest pest that is devastating all species of ash trees in the Eastern U.S. But there were no signs of borers. It turned out the problem was "ash yellows."
This disease is caused by a microbe and spread by insects. Together with the emerald ash borer, this disease seems likely to cause the same sort of devastatoin wrought by chestnut blight, which wiped out the American chestnut early in the 20th century. Apparently the problem isn't confined to my wood lot near Jefferson City. A St. Louis-area tree service I talked to today said they are removing lots of ash trees killed by yellows. I hate that. Besides being great shade trees, ash trees' straight grain makes them a dream to split for firewood. Baseball fans will mourn the loss because most wooden baseball bats are made of northern white ash. Ash also is a favorite for making guitars and other musical instruments.
Healthy ash trees can survive five or 10 years after contracting yellows. Watering during dry periods and fertilizing helps, but there is no cure.
I wish there was something more cheerful to say about this. The only good news I can see is that I have a few years to lay in a supply of ash logs for friends who carve duck decoys. But what a pity for our grandchildren, who might never know the pleasure shaving curls of wood from a smooth ash plank as they shape a canoe paddle or a longbow.