Ailanthus, or Letting it Go

I once harbored a grudge against an entire species. Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, or simply ailanthus, is a deciduous tree belonging to the simaroubaceae family. With its spindly trunk and frond-like bows of pinnate leaves, ailanthus vaguely resembles a palm plant, and its native range extends from the temperate regions of China through Southeast Asia. But if you live in Europe or the contiguous US, there’s a good chance that you have crossed paths with this “tenacious bastard,” as I once referred to it. Ailanthus is an invasive in both regions, where it thrives in disturbed, low-quality soils such as those found in abandoned lots or the margins of railroads, freeways, or any patch of land that has been cleared of vegetation (the above photo was taken at the edge of a playing field). For this reason, ailanthus is sometimes referred to as the ghetto palm, although its pungent odor and status as a noxious weed has earned it a variety of nicknames: stink tree, stinking sumac, tree-of-hell.

My war with ailanthus began five years ago during my senior year of high school. As part of a project for my AP environmental science class, I learned to identify invasive plants in a tract of woods near my house. I did not come across tree-of-heaven in those woods, although in the course my research I happened on a webpage with a photograph of an ailanthus sapling under the bold-face heading, “IF YOU SEE THIS PLANT IN YOUR YARD, REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY.”  I learned that a tree I had taken to be just another part of the urban scenery of the Northeastern US, a common sight along the edges of highways on drives to visit family in New Jersey, was in fact a foreign invader. Thereafter, I was seeing tree-of-heaven everywhere. I eyed two saplings growing along my half-mile bike route to the Darien YMCA, noted the prevalence of ailanthus along the edges of Darien’s sports fields, and, once while driving out of New York City, spotted a mature, six-story specimen from I-95 in the North Bronx. I had no idea how overrun my home was.

So the alarm was implanted when, one weekend that June, I noticed a young, seven-foot-tall ailanthus growing in my next-door-neighbor’s side lawn, just a few feet from my own family’s back yard. I wasn’t surprised. Our neighbor at the time, Mr. Micello, was not a fastidious groundskeeper, and a veritable jungle of overgrown bushes and weeds demarcated our properties. Tree-of-heaven can produce 14,000 seeds for every pound of biomass, so it was inevitable that an ailanthus samara would settle and sprout in that jungle. After getting Mr. Micello’s permission, I armed myself with a pair of garden shears and a plastic lawn barrel and spent an afternoon hacking away at the invader, all the while scowling at tree-of-heaven’s burnt peanut oil scent. I had read about how ailanthus can clone itself via root suckering, and that cutting down the exposed parts of the plant is only a temporary control. Yet I also read accounts of tree-of-heaven roots growing through concrete and destabilizing building foundations, and so the warning kept flashing bright red in my head: REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY.

Felling that one ailanthus offered no satisfaction. I continued to regard with near-horror entire colonies of ailanthus clones erupting along the roadways of the Tri-State area. That summer on a trip to Italy I saw a cluster of tree-of-heaven growing beside a gravel parking lot in rural Tuscany (no!), and when I returned home to Darien I discovered that the same tree I hacked to pieces a few weeks earlier had grown back to its previous height (the bastard!). Ailanthus even infiltrated my sleep. In one dream, I walk out the front door in the morning to find that, overnight, an ailanthus of sequoia proportions has taken root across the street and bulldozed one of my neighbor’s homes to the side. In another, ailanthus samaras, borne by an equatorial breeze, are showering over Thomasinsa Lane like snow, and every native plant has been replaced by an embryonic tree-of-heaven.

Ailanthus was a punk, I decided, a spoiled brat with no capacity for restraint. It didn’t belong in New England, land of white pine and sugar maple. It was too smelly, too exotic. It just didn’t look right.

It just didn’t look right. Hungarian nationalists use this same words to describe Syrian refugees walking down the streets of Budapest. The parallel between contempt for an invasive plant and that for foreigners and ethnic minorities is an imperfect one; as the above photo of the kudzu barren makes clear, crowding of ecosystems by non-native species is a legitimate environmental concern. But displaced people and invasive plants are both symptomatic of the Crisis of Now, and therefore merit joint consideration.

In Failed States, Collapsing Systems, journalist Nafeez Ahmed outlines how the sectarian violence that has riven Syria since 2011 is partly an outgrowth of a years-long drought that exacerbated unaffordable food prices and growing unemployment, especially in rural areas. These global warming-induced pressures only added more strain to a nation buckling under declining oil revenue. Similar biophysical trends played out in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, and in aggregate resulted in the pulse of immigration from the Arab world that Europe witnessed 2015-2016. Meanwhile, in the botanical realm, global warming enables subtropical plants to migrate northwards in moist regions such as the eastern US, while intensifying droughts in arid climates allows the further spread of xeric exotics like Russian thistle.

With this background of interlocking global systems in mind, the sentiment it just doesn’t look right” belies a lack of understanding of the complex feedbacks that are altering the contours of human life around the world. My growing comprehension of those feedbacks these past five years is partly why I no longer grudge ailanthus. I imagine that going deaf in my left ear in 2014 also helped me learn to let go of the unalterable, and much of what we as a global society will experience as the Crisis of Now progresses cannot be blunted as much as we’d like. In an article for Grist titled “Let it Go: The Arctic Will Never Be Frozen Again,” Eric Holthaus details how, as of last year, polar researchers can confidently project that the Arctic will never again be reliably frozen like it had been since modern humans evolved 150 thousand years ago. Last week The Guardian reported that the most ancient of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice ruptured for the first time in recorded history this past summer. In a similar vein, recent research indicates that the carbon storing capacity of soils worldwide is diminishing rapidly in relation to increasing atmospheric temperatures.

Each new climatological threshold is a potential Rubicon for human civilization. In addition to giving up modes of living that we know are destructive to Earth’s life support systems – no more 5,000-square foot houses, nightly steak dinners, or ski resorts – we also have to learn to let go of certain trappings we used to associate with home, wherever that might be. According to the most optimistic forecasting models, Connecticut will have a climate comparable to that of northern Virginia by mid-century. Worst-case-scenario models predict Connecticut’s climate will resemble South Carolina’s in thirty-odd years. If the latter turns out to be true, then I have to accept that, probably in my lifetime, white pines and sugar maples will recede to the Canadian Shield and New England will become a land of palmetto, loblolly pine, and, of course, ailanthus. Europeans have to brace for further influxes of refugees from destabilized parts of the Middle East and Africa, while all denizens of the world’s coastal regions will need to negotiate a new shoreline as sea levels rise. We can act to mitigate the effects of global warming, but words like “mitigation” and “resiliency” are already an admission on our part that there’s no going back to what we once knew.

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High tide at Holly Pond in Darien, encroaching on a seawall. A section of the wall pictured here collapsed in 2002 from tidal action. A collapse will most certainly happen again.

Mr. Micello no longer lives next door. His property was bought up by a developer who replaced his relatively humble 1970s-ers house with a larger, more marketable structure. The developer also cleared out Mr. Micello’s jungle and the ailanthus tree with it (they probably had to use a backhoe to do the job). Yet even if that tree-of-heaven were still standing, I don’t think I would care. There’s just too much that’s in flux now in the 21st century, too much change that cannot be undone, while the legitimately urgent problems are much greater than a scrawny, root-suckering tree. When I spent an afternoon hacking away at my neighbor’s invasive weed I was also motivated by a primal desire to see ailanthus – my enemy – vanquished entirely from the Northeast. Such a desire is quixotic in the extreme and belies a scorched-earth antagonism that will be of no help in the decades to come.

Besides, as Lauret Savoy tells us in Trace, to inhabit a landscape means also to be implicated in that landscape’s history. Well, tree-of-heaven was introduced to the United States at the turn of the 19th century, when everything Oriental was trending among America’s educated class. After being cultivated in the gardens of the gentry (including, probably, the grounds of Sylvester Manor), tree-of-heaven was used as a street tree in the young Republic’s urban centers. Imagine that; ailanthus first took root in North American when the United States was in its infancy. We grew up together on this continent. And since then tree-of-heaven and One Nation Under God have been casting their seeds to the wind, yearning to multiply.

These thoughts in mind, I cannot help thinking of Camille Dungy’s poem, “What I know I cannot say,” which considers a different invasive plant:

“the blue gum has colonized

the California coastal forests, squeezing out native plants, dominating the landscape,

and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate

the blue gum eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing,

 by which I mean to say from their pods, you know what I mean 

I hope, their original homes, from the well of their longing

blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me?

I absolve you. You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.

I am not yet at the point where I can think of ailanthus as a beautiful tree, but I do now appreciate that tree-of-heaven and its status as an invasive in North America is only a single phenomenon, one subplot in a very complex story line. Who among us is not a manifestation of a convoluted chain of events? I’m referring here to conquests, genocides, mass migrations, innovation, leaps of faith – world history. And the pageant continues today in the decisions we make in this century of transition, an era some refer to as the Great Turning. Whatever actions we take, though, must be directed by a fierce desire to persist and forge new ways of living amidst so much loss and dislocation. Ailanthus, which can grow from the most degraded of soils, has already demonstrated a tendency to thrive far from its original home, and for that I regard it with a certain degree of respect.

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