Beginning of this story
My doctor had recently told me I was allergic to elms, but I knew it before then. Early in the spring I would notice the sudden buds on their twigs, bulging like blood blisters. On a morning soon after that I would wake sneezing, and that would prove to be the morning their buds had opened into tiny burgundy flowers. They were odd, gritty flowers that seemed to have erupted, rather than bloomed. A few days later still I would find my windshield clotted with specks of a substance indistinguishable in color and viscosity from Super Glue. This stuff is the blood elms spill as aphids attack them. Such attacks rarely do them any lasting damage.
Nor were those my only grievances. I remembered that elm roots clog sewers. I remembered the pale disks of elm fruit that blew in under the door every May, which resisted the broom and the vacuum with annoying tenacity. I further reflected on the dismal scratching sound that sometimes woke me on windy winter nights—the reaching branches of the elm, grasping at the furnace vent on the roof. Of course often enough I was awake before the sound, writing or rehearsing my griefs; maybe the elm only took the blame. In any event, I pruned those limbs far back every summer; every winter, they scratched to prove they had reached the house again.
I resolved to kill the thing, or at least prune it so far back the winter would finish it for me. I went at it with a telescoping pruner and a ladder and a handsaw. The early work went well; I took off a branch or two every evening, and the patch of lawn where the grass would never grow was suddenly flooded with light. The scratching on the roof stopped. The gray-brown bark yellowed with oozing sap beneath the wounds I made.
And while I inflicted this gradual violence on my enemy, I was falling in love with it. I was discovering an ecosystem new to me, one that had existed just over my head all my life. The roach-hunting wasp was only my first discovery in this new world. Another day I came upon a baseball-sized gray nodule. I assumed it to be merely an aberrant growth in the wood, but when I tried to steady myself against it, it bubbled beneath my hand, and the air was suddenly full of a smell reminiscent of bad banana and distant skunk. It was a mass of squash bugs, the shield-shaped, thumbnail-sized gargoyles I encountered in great profusion in my garden every summer. I had always wondered where that foul-smelling congregation went between attacks on my garden. Here they were, camouflaged in the shelter of the elm’s bark.
I found the yellow-and-black larvae of the elm leaf beetle, recognizable because their colors matched the adults’. I had seen the adults often enough--they reigned for a week or so every summer, through profusion rather than might. About the size and shape of a sunflower nut-meat, an elm leaf beetle is the feeblest creature imaginable, breaking at any touch. I find them clotted beneath the windshield wipers on my car, or orbiting the porch light, or littering the skeins of the garden spiders that rest by day in a patch of marigolds beneath my kitchen window. Some nights I see the spiders cutting the elm leaf beetles loose uneaten, as if such food were bad for one’s cholesterol.
The larvae were soft as bread dough. I could touch one and find my finger marked with a sort of yellow nicotine stain—the oily excreta of its accordion skin. The damage they did to the elm was astounding: its green curtains of leaves became lacy in the space of three days. Even when I climbed the ladder to search, it was hard to find an unmolested leaf. Some leaves had been drilled with a few round holes. Others had been worked along the side, their normally serrated edges chewed into a different pattern of serration, the notches of which matched the span of a larva’s mouthparts. Still other leaves had been reduced to their pliant green spines.
Yet nothing much came of this assault. The tree in my backyard transformed itself in another few days, tossing its tattered leaves to the ground and erupting with the folded beginnings of new ones.
As my pruning project expanded to fill weeks and then months--I admit I skipped an evening here and a month there--my admiration for the Siberian elm grew. The aphids had hardly slowed it; the elm leaf beetles had proved only a minor inconvenience; my own mutilations had inspired the tree to do a hydra routine, putting out at least two leaf-laden twigs at the rim of every oozing wound I made. This toughness explains why a tree murderer from the Oklahoma Panhandle should find himself pondering a plant from Siberia.
The Panhandle is notorious for its weather: late freezes; Indian summers that fool plants into suicidal early bloomings; fluctuating humidity; temperatures diving forty or fifty Fahrenheit degrees in a few hours; drought; an occasional tornado. One spring a single storm deposited four feet of hail on the highway, but knocked only two old branches and a little greenery off my elm. The climate is inhospitable to many plants that do well elsewhere. That’s why people around here brought in a shade tree from a place with even tougher weather: Siberia. My forebears promptly named the tree the Chinese elm, probably on the theory that all exotic locales to the east may as well be China. Confusingly, another tree really is called the Chinese elm, but its flat bark, which flakes off in leprous patches, is nothing like the furrowed geography of the Siberian species.
Several of the thirty-odd species of elm expanded their ranges in the 1930s because of the Roosevelt administration’s Shelterbelt Project, wherein rows of trees were planted to counter erosion. The Oklahoma Panhandle, the very core of the dust bowl, needed shelter belts, and the hardy Siberian elm was the tree of choice. The reason the Siberian succeeded where other trees, even other elms, failed, was an aggressive root system. When much of the topsoil is literally in the air, only a plant that can drill its own well has a chance.
My own Siberian elm was already in leaf one April when a late blizzard dropped the temperature into the single digits for two nights. The freeze seemed to demolish every bit of green on the tree. Afterward, the melting snow was filthy with a dust made of brittle bits of elm leaf. A few days after this apocalypse, the tree was leafing out again. By summer it looked as hardy as it ever had.
I shouldn’t give the impression that the Siberian elm is impervious to harm. Dutch elm disease and other fungal infections attack the species, and so do a broad range of bacteria, nematode worms, viruses, and even mycoplasms. The cemetery in my hometown is called Elmhurst. It is full of Siberian elms more than half a century old. Some are healthy. Others bear goiters the size of human heads. The bark on these diseased excrescences snaps off easily in my hand. The naked wood beneath seems made of thick liquid movements now frozen, like the pattern in the surface of hardened fudge. Tiny spikes of wood protrude here and there. But these trees have been alive in this deformed condition, putting out new growth each spring, for decades.
The Siberian elm is tolerant of most herbicides. It often breathes polluted air and bathes in acid rain with impunity. Even the salting of its soil is not a sure way to kill it. It grows in sunlight or shade, in dry sand or riverbank mud. The only forces that seem to do it real harm are the acts of God: fire and ice, lightning and wind.
The tree in my back yard has beaten me. I have pruned its limbs as far up as I can reach, and still it thrives. The cement walk is littered with disks of elm fruit, cast like coins to a beggar. At the foot of the tree’s trunk stands a new sapling, sprung from old roots. In a corner of the yard is an amputated limb, as long as I am and thicker than my thigh. Since I cut it down, its flanks have unfolded a dozen slender sprouts, each now tatted with tender green.