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A mighty survivor: A rare American elm tree discovered close to home in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

American elm trees, like this one in Baltimore, were once common in cities and towns, but millions of them were ravaged by disease. They are now rare.
American elm trees, like this one in Baltimore, were once common in cities and towns, but millions of them were ravaged by disease. They are now rare. (Baltimore Sun staff)

One day the pandemic will be behind us, and then what? During a Zoom meeting with relatives, everyone seemed to agree that the office, as we knew it, is finished. Children might need the socializing benefits of going to school, but adults seem largely content with working from home. No one in my small survey said they missed the commute or cubicle.

It’s an interesting question: What stays with us after the awful ends? One day, hopefully in the coming year, we will breathe easier about all this and engage in some sort of personal inventory, weighing what, if anything, was good about the stay-home orders. The Boston Globe posed this question to readers: “What changes from pandemic life are worth keeping?”

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I tend toward indifference on that because of all the ruinous chaos in the response to the coronavirus, the lack of competent and consistent national leadership. With so much death, and so much of it avoidable, I find it strange to entertain anything personally rewarding about the crisis.

But I’ll offer at least this: Knowing better my space, appreciating what’s right in front of me, and finding civic treasure in the process.

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One morning after a heavy rain, I picked up and examined a branch that had snapped off a tree in my Baltimore neighborhood. I might not have done this before the pandemic and the big slowdown. But when you’re forced to stay close to home and keep your distance from strangers, you find yourself associating with things that do not cough or sneeze.

Like trees.

This one in my neighborhood is gorgeous, with a thick trunk reaching up 25 feet, then sprawling in all directions with 40- and 50-foot limbs that, in summer, are flush with leaves. The crown must top out at nearly 100 feet. The tree, situated at the corner of one yard, provides shade for four, and its jaw-drop beauty is available to anyone who takes a minute to look up.

What kind of tree is it? I had never bothered to check until this moment of the fallen branch.

The green leaves were about two inches long. They had saw-toothed edges and pointy tips, and the surface of each felt like sandpaper.

I took a picture of the leaves and submitted it to the iNaturalist app on my phone. The little genius inside took one look and identified the tree as Ulmus americana — that is, an American elm.

Now let that sink in. If you don’t get the significance, you will in a minute.

First, I need to describe my reaction to what the app told me — and what the city’s arborist later verified.

In February, when informed that the actor Kirk Douglas had just died at 103, my reaction was: “Kirk Douglas was still alive?” And I’m likely not the only one who assumed that Spartacus had gone to Hollywood Heaven years earlier.

It was something like that with the elm tree.

Dutch elm disease was an arboreal pandemic, killing millions of beautiful trees in Europe, then North America over the last century. American elms once beautified and shaded city boulevards and small-town main streets. I remember seeing dying ones cut down and hauled away when I was a kid. I considered them part of America’s past, as bygone as the passenger pigeon.

So, learning that this big, healthy tree was an American elm came as a mild shock. Erik Dihle, the city arborist, confirmed it. So did tree lover Sarah Lord and arborist Amanda Cunningham, both members of the Baltimore City Forestry Board. They came out to see the elm and were impressed. Cunningham estimated its age at about 100 years.

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I had to weigh that: It meant someone had planted the elm around the time of the 1918-1919 pandemic. I felt we had an old and unappreciated war hero in our midst. How lucky we are to have this survivor still breathing life into the neighborhood.

American elms are rare but, turns out, there are still a few scattered around Baltimore. Lord directed me to “an ancient monster” on the median along Gwynns Falls Parkway between Rosedale and Longwood streets in West Baltimore. That particular elm is believed to have been planted as part of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1904 plan for Baltimore’s park system.

Other types of elms, including one resistant to the Dutch elm disease, have been planted in recent years, according to Dihle. The city’s tree canopy is at 28% and slowly growing (despite the loss of thousands of infested ash trees) toward its goal of 40% by 2030.

The canopy, however, is not spread evenly across the city, and Lord noted this in a letter to the Baltimore City Council urging its members to support a bill to augment and accelerate the city’s tree planting efforts.

“There remain many neighborhoods where healthy tree shade and air exchange are nowhere near 28%, let alone 40%,” Lord wrote. “Baltimore’s tree coverage deficit is a social equity issue in need of redress.”

The council is considering changes to its forest conservancy code that should generate more funds for trees, bringing shade and better air to more city neighborhoods, building a canopy against climate change.

And that’s all good, and I thought you should know about it. But mostly, I thought you should know about the gorgeous, old American elm that survived, that lives on, that will be with us after the awful ends.

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