The Works of Allison Cummings

Allison Cummings is an associate professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH, where she lives with her husband, twins, dog, and garden. She has published mainly poetry and articles on poetry in journals such as Passages North, The Literary Review, and The Madison Review, but recently has turned to writing essays. She has also edited literary magazines, most recently Amoskeag: the Journal of SNHU.

All Nonfiction © Allison Cummings

Ode to the Hemlock

In 1998, a student wrote a paper for my eco-composition class on the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). He came from a family of South Carolina peach farmers, and was keenly interested in any bug that killed trees, though this one attacks hemlock, not peach. Because of that student, I have walked through the world checking on hemlocks as a nurse might check on patients—an unqualified nurse with little power to save them, all the more anxious for her uselessness. Some of the terminal cases I’ve seen were in North Carolina and lower Connecticut, where fifty-foot hemlock hedges were desiccated: grey skeletons of fine, bald branches with scattered patches of grayish needles next to the tell-tale white foam of the sap-sucking woolly adelgid. The last needles near the crown of the tree made the horror of their general absence more vivid, like patches of hair on a cancer patient’s skull.

The internet has plenty of sites describing the adelgid, aimed at helping non-specialists keep an eye out for it. The size and color of a period (.), the adelgid grows in winter and forms a white puffy wax to protect itself from predators, but is generally spotted via telltale tufts of white foam on hemlock branches. The pest lives for one year and lays eggs on the tree in early spring. The HWA feeds on sap, stealing the tree’s essential fluid and nutrient supplies, and producing toxic saliva that further weakens the tree. Infested trees can die in a few years or hang on for ten in a weakened state, to be killed eventually by scale or storms or more pests. Though the adelgid arrived in the Northwest in the 1920s from Japan, it has done minimal damage to the western hemlock

(Tsuga heterophylla), thanks to predators in that area. However, the bug is feasting on Eastern and Carolina hemlock (Tsuga canadensis and Tsuga caroliniana), ravaging shady forests from Wisconsin to Nova Scotia, down to Georgia.

In his book Thoreau’s Garden, Peter Loewer traces the complex naming of Tsuga, memorably noting that in Japanese, “tsuga” means “tree mother.” Healthy hemlock trees are vital progenitors of the Eastern forest, providing good nesting habitats for birds and protective shade for the forest understory and for creeks where cold-water fish like trout live. A healthy hemlock can live nearly nine hundred years and grow a hundred feet tall. It is also the loveliest evergreen in the Northeast. Thoreau sang its praises in all seasons in his journal: “The hemlock woods, their fan-like sprays edged or spotted with short yellowish-green shoots, tier above tier, . . . look like a cool bazaar of rich embroidered goods.” Each tiny needle has two white stripes on the underside like a longboard for a surfing ladybug. The pinky-nail-sized cones, produced only by mature trees over fifteen years old, begin life green, soft, and shuttered, but open and brown before falling to the ground in the winter. The hemlock’s thin, flexible limbs hold deep green, lacy fans that flutter in the slightest breeze like a gauzy skirt. Unlike the chubby candles that sprout from pine or fir in spring, the hemlocks’ bright green new growth is as soft and small as pussy willow and appears throughout the growing season. People who don’t live amid leafless limbs and deep snow for half the year may not realize how evergreens keep the heart and eye alive during the long season of white. Yet no conifer holds its snow as beautifully as Tsuga. Snow lies in white ropes along the stiff arms of spruce and fir, and drops like balls of dough as wind and sun undo a fresh snowfall’s magic. On hemlock, the flakes assemble in filigree, and when the wind blows again, each snowflake takes its second and final glittering flight. Those wispy branches are also its strength. Bend a limb in a circle and it will not break. The New England ice storms that shave the branches of white pine like a zealous military barber leave the hemlock blowsy and whole --and a few degrees safer from the woolly adelgid.

Emily Dickinson noted the hemlock’s affinity with winter long ago:

I think the Hemlock likes to Stand,

Upon a Marge of Snow

It suits his own Austerity –

And satisfies an awe –

. . . .

The Hemlock's nature thrives -- on cold –

The Gnash of Northern winds

Is sweetest nutriment -- to him –

Dickinson had plenty of opportunity to contemplate hemlocks. They were abundant in the forests and towns in Massachusetts in the late 1800s, and her yard’s fence was a sheared hemlock hedge, some two hundred trees long. Early in 2009, those hemlocks, now towering above the house and stricken with HWA, were cut down, but a new hedge of hemlock was planted. The stewards of the Homestead aim to prune and inoculate the hedge to ward off the adelgid’s return.

I’d like to tell Emily how prescient she was, as usual. Winter itself keeps the hemlock alive. After its initial appearance in the states, it arrived again in the early ‘50s on a nursery tree in Richmond, Virginia, and quickly traveled to the Appalachians. It is only since the warming winters of the late ‘80s, though, that it has done extensive damage: in the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah parks, 90% of the hemlocks have died, and scientists expect they may be decimated within the next decade. While the adelgid kills hemlocks directly, the balmy winters of climate change have opened the door and escorted the bug to its prey: the adelgid has been advancing by twenty miles each year since the ‘80s. For some years, it hovered in Massachusetts, unable to leap the New Hampshire border into deeper winter cold and snow. After a couple warm millennial winters, though, the pest crept into southern New Hampshire and southern Maine.

I moved to Manchester, New Hampshire in the summer of 2002, and soon after bought a house with a quarter-acre yard barren of trees, save a Charlie Brownish Japanese Maple. I wanted an evergreen screen other than yew that wouldn’t cloak the yard in shade or get in my close neighbors’ windows, but that would enclose the garden and soften the fence line—much like the Dickinsons’ hedge. A friend in Connecticut with an ailing hemlock hedge, a landscape architect herself, dismissed tsuga. Why plant a dying species? It’s bad business to plant trees that will die, especially at $150-plus per specimen, so she has dropped the hemlock from her design palate. But I’m not a landscape architect. So, after poring over gardening and tree books, after walking around my neighborhood and the region, seeing still healthy hemlock hedges, stands, and lone trees, and after watching more than three feet of winter snow fall only on the rusty bars of my chain-link fence, I began planting a few hemlocks the following spring. Two came from a reputable nursery, two from a friend’s yard by the seacoast, and a couple sprouts I rescued from vacant lots soon to be bulldozed.

Six summers later, they are thriving, twelve-feet tall, and gorgeous. I’ll surely be cursed with white foam tomorrow for such bragging.

The following year, I got pregnant, at forty. Both actions were leaps of faith for the faithless, at the eleventh hour. Though the trees are endangered and we are anything but, both gestures asked, what if solutions are possible and life will go on, contrary to what really looks like the end? I had always felt the sky was falling in various forms (nuclear armageddon, overpopulation, climate change), but life appeared to be continuing. For a brief window, I began to second-guess my ongoing sense of impending apocalypse, to think that the sky has never entirely fallen so far, that most people have not felt that they lived in the endtimes. Or those who did (Nostradamus, Malthus, Heaven’s Gate) didn’t live to see that life went on. In the years since my second-guessing, however, many more people have started paying attention to climate change and impending environmental catastrophes, confirming my initial dread. And the adelgid has spread to three counties in New Hampshire, despite long, snowy winters. Are all my charges doomed?

For Tsuga canadensis, it turns out there is some hope. In every state, there are now arborists, biologists, nursery owners, and homeowners poised to spot and kill any adelgids they find. A woman from the Department of Natural Resources tracked down my nursery trees and came to check them: they passed. With intervention, perhaps this bug can be beaten. Healthy trees with acidic, loamy soil and plenty of water are less likely to become infested than trees stressed by road salt, drought, or too much sun. Homeowners can spray a soap or horticultural oil in winter, before the tree sprouts new growth in spring, that won’t harm other beneficial insects. They can check trees for signs of adelgid and cut off suspect parts, and also prune off weak or dead branches to encourage growth. Out in the forests, researchers have injected a chemical inoculant, Imidacloprid among others, into the soil below infested trees. The inoculant kills earthworms and other beneficial critters in the vicinity, but treated trees have surprised scientists with their recovery. Finally, there are biological controls, our best hope: the adelgid has some natural predators, the Pt beetle (Sasajiscymnus tsugae) and Laricobius nigrinus. Scientists north and south have released these insects and are seeing some hemlock stands recover. The Pt beetle preys exclusively on the adelgid, so researchers don’t foresee collateral damage to other species, though of course one never knows. Amid all the environmental crises around us, here is a quiet one with some solutions underway and some cause for tentative hope.

As for those kids (plural, for I spawned twins), they are healthy and hopeful. If hemlocks disappear from the landscape, they will never know the loss, though we collect the cute cones to make mini-wreaths. To kids, everything is how the world works, the best of all possible worlds. That recurrent generational acceptance of what is—rather than what was or could be—creates adaptation, equanimity. But I am too old and stubborn to adapt: I do cultivate my own garden, willfully insisting on my hemlocks’ survival, even as the germs of their demise come winging across the fence. I want my kids to imagine what can be, to know what could be better, and to act on these insights. For a planet in such peril is an ailing patient that needs both our informed nurturing and our hands off, and we’ll need to know when each is appropriate. Amid earth’s sixth period of mass extinction—this one caused by our colossal footprint—I hope we can help the hemlock survive into a livable future, even if only as a domesticated species, with its own delicate strength.