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Column: Hug an old ash tree ... before they’re gone

  • Micki Colbeck photographs

  • Micki Colbeck photograph

  • Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/27/2020 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 6/27/2020 10:10:11 PM

When hiking in the woods in May, I instinctively look around the base of ash trees. Sometimes in a rich, sweet wood, or near an old stone fence, fruiting bodies of the Morchella genus will be popping up.

Morels are mycorrhizal fungi, having a symbiotic relationship, where both the tree and the fungus benefit. The fungi get photosynthetic sugars from the tree, and the tree, in return, absorbs extra water and nutrients through the fungi.

It took years to train my eyes to see those little brain-like cream-colored cone heads, for they mimic the leaf litter exactly. I still remember, not so many years ago, how excited I was upon finding my first morel. From that point on, I had a visual reference in my brain, and the searches became easier, although some years, there were none. I am always grateful when I can find some for dinner, being careful to only take a few and to spread the spores on the forest floor, putting them in a net bag as I walk. Morels are sac fungi, in the phylum Ascomycota — spore shooters. Other Ascomycetes are truffles, yeasts, dead man’s fingers and cup fungi.

One day, while hiking, I had a sudden urge to hug a big ash tree, so I did. Once I got over the embarrassment of what this might look like, I realized how good it felt. Ash trees are tall and strong and have warm textured bark exactly right for gripping. No one shakes hands anymore, let alone gives a full-on hard hug, so except for squeezing the poor dogs, I have not had a good one in a while.

There are other reasons to hug an ash. They, too, are being threatened with an invasive pathogen. Short of a vaccine for the emerald ash borer, our large, straight, strong trees will be dying in a few years. The ash has given us many things: baseball bats, furniture, firewood, beautiful shade trees, and the fungi that associate with their roots. They are the last to leaf out in the spring and the first to drop leaves in the fall. The tree is cautious about putting out compound leaves too soon. Those many leaflets that make up each leaf are expensive to grow.

Holding on to the ash felt like thanking it, acknowledging its life, and apologizing for its predicament. The emerald ash borer is yet another non-native pest brought here from a far-away continent by shipping. If I could give some nutrients back to the tree I would, but I neither have chloroplasts to make sugars nor hyphae to absorb minerals from the soil. I am only a large-brained primate who knows how to harvest energy from other species. This primate benefits from forest bathing, a term for disconnecting devices and learning to “just be” in nature, experiencing viscerally through our senses. I would like to think the tree enjoyed the hug too, but I am enough of a biologist to not go there. Anyway, I am planning on hugging a couple of ashes today, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Micki Colbeck, of Strafford, is an artist, a conservation biologist and a member of the Strafford Conservation Commission. Write to her at

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