Ashes to ashes

Invasive pest fells a homely beauty
Paul Epp

In the early 2000s, the emerald ash borer was first discovered in Canada. It’s a foreign insect that kills ash trees, and it has spread quickly. But who is noticing? There has not been much commentary. I keep waiting for the public funeral, and the accompanying outrage. Canada was invaded by a murderous scourge and we’ve been placidly carrying on as though nothing has happened. As designers, we have lost an important material, and our arsenal of design choices has been sadly diminished. We ought to care.

Some of us have noticed. In the early ‘80s I bought a house on the Scarborough Bluffs. One of my first home improvements was to plant an ash tree in the south-facing front yard. I wanted a tree that grew quickly and that provided shade, but not too much: a tree with a lacy rather than opaque canopy. Ash was my ideal candidate, and it served me well, but now it’s gone. There are other conspicuous gaps in our urban greenery, as ash has been a fairly popular urban tree, for the same reasons that I chose. It was fast-growing and hardy, or at least until it was felled by its nemesis. It was also pretty, in an understated way. Other trees can be much more impressive, but it is the ash that was relied on to quietly get the job done.

It’s conspicuously missing in our rural woodlands, too. Ash has long been an important component of our wooded biodiversity. We have taken its presence in our forests for granted. It’s usually long and tall, with a nice straight trunk. Its canopy let some light through, which benefited the undergrowth. Often found along streams, it anchored the soil and checked erosion. It doesn’t have a brilliant and spectacular fall colour and that may be why, in part, we’ve overlooked it.

Most of us have had some intimate contact with it, especially if we are older. It was the preferred wood for hockey sticks, toboggans, sleighs, snowshoes, tennis racquets, baseball bats, skis, oars and paddles, and many other playful uses, where its strong, pliant and elastic nature were valuable. But we probably didn’t know it by its name.

Dorsal view of an adult emerald ash borer with elytra and wings spread.

As workers, we would have been familiar with it too, again, especially if we are older. It has been a very popular handle for tools, like hammers, axes, shovels, rakes, and anywhere else where shock absorption was an asset. Hickory was sometimes an alternative, but the ease with which ash is worked, along with its (then) plentiful availability made it the default.

I happen to now live in a house that was built in the 19th century as worker housing for an adjacent wagon factory. Ash would have been the dominant material used, again for its strengths and shock absorption. Plus, its availability and good price point. Its long and straight trunks made it a productive wood to harvest. Once cars and trucks were replacing wagons, the frames and metal supporting understructure of these early automobiles were made of wood and usually the wood was ash.

But as wood as a material has become industrialized into a sheet material that is mostly synthetic, we have lost our knowledge of and respect for this once-valued material. Now, the ash we buy will most likely consist of a paper-thin surface on a fibre and polymer substrate, where its elastic nature doesn’t even leave a hint. Our hammer handle will be synthetic too, like our tennis racquet. Ash has never been considered an especially valuable wood. Not that it wasn’t useful, but it was rarely outstanding. It is pale and plain, with a typically predictable, uniform grain. It’s not something we get excited about and we don’t have a legacy of valuable, solid-wood furniture made of ash. It was popular for rustic chairs and a few other items, but not heirloom material.

I’ve often thought of ash as feminine, tall and blond like a Nordic woman, but more of a lady-in-waiting than a princess. I’ve enjoyed her homely beauty and celebrated her understatement. She has been compliant and dutiful, taking stain easily to masquerade as more valuable oak, and lathe-turning well to take a desired form without calling attention to herself. She has bent when desired and also split easily when that was required. She served me well and I’ll miss her.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University and former chair of its Industrial Design department.