The Elm and its Afterlife   

So long

Death of the Elm

An American Elm arcs over the gravel road near our home. We've watched with love and sorrow for 17 years, as it slowly died of elm disease. 

Last spring it grew a final crop of leaves. But by summer it was bare as winter. 

Today, with the respectful skill of a surgeon, Eli removed the limbs poised to fall on the road. 

What remains will house woodpeckers and chickadees for a few more years. 

The elm's afterlife.

Signs of life

Black-capped Chickadee

I'll watch it even more closely now, to see if suitable cavities develop where birds might nest. There may be woodpeckers already eyeing that tree as a potential nest site for next year.

Once woodpeckers have started the job, other cavity nesters will follow. Chickadees don't have beaks strong enough to hollow out solid wood. However, they often take over a nesthole that woodpeckers have laboriously excavated the previous year. If the heartwood is soft enough, chickadees will manage to dig out some sawdust and enlarge a small hole until it's big enough to raise a family in.

American Elm leaves

I once heard a hollow tapping from inside a rotten snag. I watched for a few minutes, and then a Black-capped Chickadee's head popped out of a hole, with its beak full of sawdust. Beak opened. Sawdust blew away on the breeze. The chickadee's head disappeared back down into the hole. And the tapping began again.  

I'll also watch the loosening bark for signs of roosting bats. They often hide between the bark and trunk of a dead tree, where the tree's outer layer is loosening and creating snug chambers.

Even though the beloved elm will never again put out its crazy, lopsided bright green leaves, I'll be watching it every day for signs of life.

— Diane Porter, Fairfield, Iowa, December 16, 2021