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Dutch elm disease fells our grand boulevard tree — and special memories

The forestry service marked our beloved elm with the orange “ring of death” late last month, the sign that the disease had finally reached us.

The beloved elm, before and after the start of removal by the city.

My wife worries about the squirrels.

She saw them first, two of them, from our second-floor bedroom windows, making a nest with leaves and twigs in the crook of the big, shady boulevard elm tree in front of our house. Thick, leafy limbs reached up and out from the place where the squirrels settled in. We never saw the babies, but neither could predators, which made it the perfect nurturing spot.

The tree, with its wide shady canopy, survived the South Minneapolis tornado of August 2009, a run of Dutch elm disease that felled the trees of several neighbors to our south, and any number of storms and high winds that left twigs and leaves strewn about our front yard and the street.

Rachel bought the house long before I came into the picture, and the grand elm was one of the big selling points.

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We were out of town when an inspector for the Minneapolis Parks forestry service marked our beloved elm with the orange “ring of death” late last month, the sign that Dutch elm disease had finally reached us. Those orange rings have become a familiar but unwelcome sign throughout Twin Cities neighborhoods since the 1970s, claiming more than 130,000 of the area’s 170,000 elms.

My wife had dreaded this moment for years. We spoke to the city, hoping that the disease was limited to one limb that could be sawed off, sparing the rest of the tree.

We weren’t that lucky.

The forestry folks arrived early one morning, and the inspector who marked the tree pointed up to three tough-to-see places where leaves had withered and died, including the crown. That’s usually a bad sign. A test of one affected limb confirmed the presence of Dutch elm too close to the trunk to save the tree. The inspector seemed as crestfallen and disappointed as we were.

“Believe, me,” he said, “I don’t get any pleasure doing this.”

We wondered whether the sidewalk replacement work last fall, where city workers violently hacked at one of the tree’s thick roots with axes, left it vulnerable to the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease. Trees can be treated for Dutch elm; could we have saved it had we noticed sooner? Or maybe ours was doomed all along, part of the natural process of living and dying. Trees, like the rest of us, don’t last forever.

Monday, the city began cutting down the tree.

So why are we so unhappy?

There’s something about a tree that attaches itself to us emotionally, like a favorite pet, or even a member of the family. My grandmother grew a magnificent magnolia tree in her backyard in eastern Long Island, a place not known for magnolias in the decades immediately after World War II. It flowered beautifully, and when my aunt and uncle were married on a gorgeous spring day in 1960, that’s where our extended family gathered for a picture. I don’t remember it — I wasn’t quite 3, and my dad held me up in the back row — but the photo occupied a prominent place in my parents’ home for years.

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Grandma died a year later. The following year, so did the tree. Before that, my mother took a clipping and planted her own magnolia outside our kitchen window. It reminded her of so much.

Our elm held memories as well. Our three cats — Rachel’s two, and then the one we adopted together — would settle in our bedroom window and observe the elm and our street for hours. In summer, the shade from the elm kept the temperature of our living and dining room manageable with a window air conditioner even on the hottest days. I never could grow lush grass on our front lawn because of all the shade, but that was all right. We’d rather have our big tree.

We’re hoping the elm across the street, a twin of ours in height and breadth, lives on many decades to offer a little protection from the setting sun and remind us of what we lost. Maybe the squirrels will nest there.

We ordered a new tree from the city, but Rachel and I will be long gone before it grows even the half the size of our elm. We plan to plant a larger tree on the south side of our front yard that maybe, in our old age, we’ll love like our elm.

Our next-door neighbors share our sadness. One told me she plans to remove a sickly tree on her property in the fall, one we can see from our living-room window. Then she pointed to a lovely little sapling they will uproot and re-plant on that spot.

It’s a magnolia.