Watching an old friend go

Watching an old friend go

Loss of elm trees changes a neighborhood for a lifetime

LYNNHURST — Watching the old elm go brought Joanne Carroll to tears.

Carroll knew the tree for so long, she couldn’t help but think of it as an old friend.

“That’s just how I feel about it,” she said, her voice quavering. “Just a good friend.”

The elm stood there all of the 38 years Carroll lived on Humboldt Avenue, even as other elms on the 5300 block succumbed to Dutch elm disease. Finally, the last of the really big ones had to come down.

“I can’t even tell you how long I feared that I would pull up someday and find the tree marked,” she said. “It just seemed like it was moving closer and closer to us.”

That day came in June. The mark of death was a blaze orange ring spray-painted around the trunk of the tree. Spray-painted above the ring was the letter “B,” identifying the city tree inspector who spotted the disease choking the elm’s limbs.

Just after 7 a.m. on the last day in July, a city forestry crew of five men showed up with a bucket truck and another truck towing a wood chipper. An arborist went up in the bucket and started taking limbs off with a chainsaw, one by one.

From where the massive trunk grew out of the narrow boulevard to the top of its crown was at least 50 feet, making it one of the bigger trees the crew had tackled this summer, one crewmember said. The limbs came crashing down onto the pavement, where they were gathered up and fed into the chipper.

Chainsaws whined. The woodchipper roared. The wood dust floating in the morning light smelled like a campfire.

Amid the din, Carroll and her next-door neighbor, Dana Peters-Guarin, talked about a changed neighborhood.

“There’s a neighbor a couple houses down who said when he moved in here — about the same time as Joanne — you’d drive down the street and it was like a canopy” of elm trees, Peters-Guarin said. “Definitely, those streets are much more appealing than those streets that have the small trees we’re getting in now.”

A few sickly looking honey locusts replaced elms that were cut down years earlier. For some reason, neighbors said, they seemed to struggle where the elms — renowned for their toughness — did not.

Jim Nicholas watched the forestry crew move around the elm’s immense crown from his front stoop across the street. A neighborhood resident for 13 years, Nicholas remembered when mature elms formed an arch across the avenue.

“It’s completely gone, now,” he said. “You can see it in a couple of blocks, but not here anymore.”

Reflecting on the change, Nicholas added: “I think the value of the neighborhood is probably a little less because of it.”

The man who marked the elm for removal was Dana Hendrickson, a city tree inspector for the past four years. Hendrickson’s mark is the spray-painted “B.”

“Everyone thinks my name is Bill, or something,” he said, and then chuckled.

Actually, the “B” identifies him as one of two city tree inspectors whose territory covers much of Southwest. Between the two of them, they marked about 600 diseased elm trees for removal from public lands this summer.

Like anyone, Hendrickson likes to see big, healthy, mature trees along city streets. He estimated the elm tree on Humboldt Avenue to be at least 80 years old.

But as a carrier of Dutch elm disease, it had to go. In cities without aggressive control plans, like Minneapolis, the disease can “spread like wildfire,” he said.

Besides, he added, once symptoms start to show — curling, yellow or brown leaves spreading through the canopy — an elm tree only has about one season left.

The next day, another forestry crew arrived to finish the job. After less than an hour’s work with a chainsaw, the trunk slowly leaned, creaking, and then slammed into the ground.

“Elms are pretty prolific,” Hendrickson said. “They drop seeds and there’s always going to be elms in wild areas and along fence lines, behind garages, popping up.

“… But, yeah, the big boulevard trees, I think eventually we will lose them all.”