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Ash Census Project
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The Ash Project

The destruction of the North American ash is the continent’s greatest extinction event since the Ice Age. Unlike the Ice Age, the death of the ash is the result of human activity, a perfect representative of nearly every dreadful trend that is currently reshaping our world and futures in disturbing ways. This particular dreadful event is centered here and now and requires (from Franklin Chthonics’ perspective) an immediate response this spring. 


The official estimate is that 8,000,000,000 trees in North America will be killed by the emerald ash borer, a process that is at a midpoint and just now arriving with full force in Franklin, NY.  The odd thing about this catastrophe is that it is making almost no impact on the collective consciousness of the country or the presumably enlightened awareness of our milieu.  Surely, most of our acquaintances are aware of and appalled by ongoing threats to the survival of the world’s coral reefs.  It's doubtful that more than a few people among them have registered the magnitude and immediacy of the ash extinction in their own backyard.


So, what is to be done? 


The Ash Project is a comprehensive response to the destruction of this essential constituent of our regional environment in one place.  Brendan Gaffney and Nick Reale have joined the project as principal directors.  Its program has several distinct goals.


1)  Heighten awareness of the ash catastrophe.  The challenge is to develop a strategy to concentrate evidence of an otherwise diffuse, somewhat gradual, and camouflaged event into an effective statement of loss. We want to try to make the scope and significance of this extinction psychologically real through a detailed narration of its unfolding in one place, a coherent tract of 250 acres of woodlands with a thriving population of thousands of white ash trees. The response being planned is not the passive observation of a holocaust (though that will be the case with one cohort of the ash population being monitored) but active management of the disaster. Other considerations are purely emotional and aesthetic, but added to these is the idea to somehow make the horror of this event genuinely visible. We are in need of individuals who can help build a mailing list, social media following, and a media library of images, graphics, texts, and such about this project.


2)  Establish a sanctuary for a living stand of ash, to be maintained indefinitely into a very uncertain future. This will be a complex and expensive undertaking, at best, but the treatment of selected trees to protect them from the ash borer has to begin this year before they have been weakened by the infestation. We have identified an easily accessible and handsome site for this sanctuary, a section of several acres that currently supports a dense population of ash trees, including many impressive, towering individuals. Perhaps this community of ash can be sustained until some fundamental, as yet unknown, change in the current situation emerges that might allow for a kind of restoration of the ash.  Perhaps we can show that the preservation of stands of ash can be economically viable and create a model for imitation.


3)  Explore organizing a possible institution to maintain the Ash Project and celebrate the ash tree’s intricate and intimate relationship with human cultures, both native and post-colonial.  While it is important not to presume to speak for the ash or project our emotions of loss onto them, we can work to establish a program that explores the depth and specificity of this loss, to the character of the woodland environment of our region and to ourselves as human beings.  In time, this program could include public access to the ash sanctuary and demonstrations of traditional crafts based on the special characteristics of ash as a medium for basketry, tools, furniture, and (ironically) baseball bats.  Perhaps, in time, we might ask people to subscribe to the project, even to pledge as individuals to contribute to the support of individual trees.


In April, we met with a representative of the company providing equipment and the product for injecting ash trees with emamectin benzoate, a naturally occuring product of fermentation that the emerald ash borer cannot tolerate.  He demonstrated the use of this equipment and provided a lot of interesting information about the habits of the ash borer and how this continental infestation is progressing in our region. Again, emamectin benzoate is injected into individual trees and is not broadcast where it can get into the ground or into the runoff of rainwater. But this treatment is an expensive proposition, particularly considering that it has to be maintained indefinitely for years, decades. In theory, this is a generational project.


Beyond the urgent need to complete the survey and treat the first cohort of protected trees, many tasks necessary to establish the Ash Project remain for interested people to consider taking on:


  • Developing the ash sanctuary with trails, clearing dead wood, removing cluttered trees, possibly adding the sort of signage seen in arboretums identifying trees to explain environmental and botanical issues.  We might also eventually decide to add a campsite, seating, and such, to encourage contemplation of the ash and how we all got into this fix.

  • Removing ash trees throughout the tract that are not designated for treatment or in areas where the ash borer infestation will be closely observed and documented but not otherwise disturbed.  This removal is an enormous undertaking but it will yield a huge volume of material for possible construction projects, specialized, traditional crafts, and, possibly, artworks.  It will also generate a vast amount of firewood (the best of any tree in our region) and material for unimaginable bonfires.

  • Enlisting the participation of environmental action and education groups that might be interested in contributing to the project or utilizing it for their programs in coming years.

  • Strategizing about how it might be possible to effectively represent the enormity of the destruction of the ash.  This could involve making one or more Goldsworthy-type, ephemeral works that combine “nature” with unnatural precision and form.

  • Organizing a program of workshops for artists and craftspeople to sustain awareness of the unique relationship people have established with ash over centuries.

  • Research in greater depth on how the emerald ash borer consumes ash, how people have tried to resist its spread, as well as contacting any similar efforts to preserve ash beyond the treatment of prominent, isolated trees.  (It’s possible that there are none and that this project is unique).

  • Creating a website and other required social media presence for the project; possibly trying to interest documentary filmmakers in creating a narrative of the ash extinction event and this particular response to it.


We hope that the Ash Project can provide an alternative to the helplessness and anxiety that is our general response to news of the unraveling of our home on this planet.  The purpose of Franklin Chthonics is to consider and experiment with our relationships to “the land”, as they have evolved and could evolve, in one particular place.  In a way, the Ash Project is an opportunity to engage positively, and collectively, with the forces that are shifting the ground beneath our feet.

This is an appeal for participation in a meticulous survey of a 250-acre forested tract in the western Catskills for the purpose of marking and mapping its entire population of ash trees. The devastation of these seemingly serene woodlands has begun with the arrival of the Emerald Ash Borer, a species of an invasive insect that kills every ash tree, sparing none.


The census will inform and guide all aspects of the project: the precise location and extent of the Ash Sanctuary, the selection of individual trees for treatment against the borer, the assignment of trees and areas to categories for salvage, observation, documentation, and experiments to discover ways to possibly make ash preservation a practical enterprise for ordinary landowners.  The census will provide data and detailed maps that may be useful to researchers, educators, foresters, craftspeople and artists we hope to involve in the Ash Project in the coming months and years.


June 20 Update

The arrival of the emerald ash borer at Franklin Chthonics has been shocking in its ferocity.  We anticipated that clear evidence of EAB infestation would be apparent this year but we have been surprised and stunned by the depth and range of the destruction that has become visible here only in the past two weeks.  Hundreds of trees are plainly dying, nearly skeletal and unable to develop their foliage.  The bark of some larger ash can be peeled away by hand in sheets.


Our plan for protecting a cohort of ash this year was intended to be proactive, only treating healthy trees not already stressed by swarms of voracious insects, but the borer has somewhat overtaken this plan.  The injection of trees began yesterday in the proposed “ash sanctuary”.  We have identified about sixty trees at this site for possible treatment, selecting ash that seem essentially intact but including many that are almost certainly under attack by EAB.  Probably, about 2/3 of the trees we treat will be in the sanctuary, the rest will be small groups or individual great trees situated around the property.


The fire festival has special significance this year by helping to establish the ash sanctuary. Clearing fallen wood and clusters of saplings will make the site more visually accessible and easier to work in, and much work will be needed to sustain a living community of woodland ash for a generation or more.  This is a very interesting area that we only became really aware of last fall.  We might also open up very good, distant views to the northwest and southwest. 



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