There’s an old saying: “You never know what you’ve got, until it’s gone.”
I can’t think of a better illustration of that principle than a mature street tree. It’s easy to miss how much a decades-old maple, like the one in front of my house, quietly transforms a street.
“I probably took them for granted,” said Maureen Freberg, describing the rows of large, contiguous ash trees that lined her street in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood. “We had all these lovely trees developing this great canopy. When you suddenly take something away, you realize how much you really miss it. It really has changed the atmosphere on the street, so much more open, and so much more light.”
Minnehaha Avenue, where Freberg lives, has long boasted the city’s best street trees. Fifty-year-old ash trees arched high over the pavement, large enough that their crowns just touched, forming a cathedral-esque natural enclosure. I’d regularly brave the rugged potholes in the bike lane, and go out of my way to travel Minnehaha. It was worth it to experience the tunneling effect of giant branches.
But, no longer — almost 100 ash trees were cut down this spring, part of the city’s triage triggered by the emerald ash borer, which has felled thousands of ashes throughout St. Paul.
The result is striking, and it’s hard to overstate how different Minnehaha Avenue feels this summer. The gap is so large that a group of Hamline-Midway neighbors recently launched an effort to speed up the city’s tree replacement schedule, raising money to grind the ash stumps and get replacements planted three years ahead of schedule.
Ash borers replaced Dutch elms
The ironic thing about the arrival of emerald ash borer is that the city’s doomed ash trees were all planted after the Dutch elm disease outbreak of the 1970s. The solution to the last generation’s tree carnage is this generation’s latest victim.
If you haven’t been keeping up with municipal forestry, the emerald ash borer is a tiny, green invasive bug native to East Asia. Unfortunately for arborists, it’s been slowly spreading through the Midwest since the 1990s, and the insects have been active in St. Paul for almost 20 years. Once they arrive in an area, they leave no ash tree behind.
That has meant a terrible fate for the almost 30,000 ash trees that once stood within city limits. For the last 12 years, city foresters have been slowly cutting down the doomed and dying trees, moving around the city in a grim harvest, cutting around 3,000 trees per year and making nobody happier.
“They were so big, arching over the road,” said Maggie Mcknight. “It was pretty heartbreaking. I was working in the garden when they were cutting them down. They closed off the street and it was so quiet, except for the saws.”
Facing a backlog and limited budget, it typically takes city crews three years to replant new trees along the boulevards and in the parks. Stumps must be ground down, sprayed, and then replacement trees planted in the boulevard. It’s an expensive, plodding, and daunting process that has taken over 10 years so far.
Faced with the community trauma of losing so many hallmark ash trees, the three-year wait was too long for people in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. Called the Replant Minnehaha Trees project, a group of businesses and institutions, led by the Hamline United Methodist Church and the neighborhood group, have been working to raise funds.
Grinding a large stump costs around $250 each time you do it. With almost 100 old stumps on Minnehaha Avenue alone, the numbers quickly add up. With almost $8K in the bank so far, the project hopes to fundraise to remove the stumps this year, and will ask the city to plant trees as early as this fall, almost three years earlier than initially planned.
‘It was pretty heartbreaking’
It’s difficult to think of a St. Paul street more transformed by the ash borer than Minnehaha Avenue, which had the best rows of ash trees I’ve seen. That’s why, the first time Mcknight saw the grim stripes of paint marked on every ash on her street, she teared up.
“The sense of being enclosed, that trees are wrapping around you, it was beautiful,” said Mcknight, who has lived on the street for more than 20 years. Now, with all the trees gone, nothing but rows of stumps and the wide open sky, she described walking out her door and feeling “apocalyptic.”
The row of stumps that line the boulevard today seem like tombstones for the old sense of place. Facing the wide-open expanse of sky along Minnehaha these days, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the street felt only a year ago.
Without the trees wrapping overhead, the atmosphere is empty and uncanny. And without the shade of the ashes, the temperature on the street literally got hotter.
“It’s really, really hot, with no shade at all,” said Mcknight. “It feels kind of empty [and] the street feels bigger.”
The sentiment is seemingly shared throughout the neighborhood, a sense of missing something important. People seem to be behaving oddly, not walking their dogs or changing how they drive.
“What it feels like now is this openness, this starkness,” agreed Maureen Freberg. “And traffic is traveling faster, it’s noisier.”
After the saws came and went in the spring, Freberg’s husband went outside and counted the rings in front of their house. He got to around 30, or a few years before their family moved into their Minnehaha Avenue home.
Even with the effort from the neighborhood, there’s no getting around the fact that trees take a long time to mature. Planting them three years sooner is great, but it will still be decades until the new saplings reach a stature that offers even half the shade and presence of the old ashes.
If the Replant Minnehaha Trees project can raise the rest of the money, the silver lining for the group is that their work on stump removal will allow the city forestry crews to focus on other neighborhoods that have stumps of their own. With help from local businesses like Ginkgo Coffee and the Midway Animal Hospital, the organizers are optimistic about getting more donations.
The lesson is simple: Especially in the midst of an intense climate change summer, don’t take your trees for granted. Go give them a hug next chance you get. Given the ongoing drought, some water wouldn’t hurt either.
“Even if we aren’t able to appreciate the trees at their full beauty, we know generations from us, someday someone will be driving down the street and say, hey they’re coming back,” said Maureen Freberg. “If not for us, for the future.”