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The Last Stand

As insect invaders approach, researchers use a combination of indigenous knowledge and Western forestry science to save a valuable tradition

Suzanne Greenlaw doesn’t like chainsaws. She moves quickly through the chest-high ostrich ferns, frilly leaves heavy with rain, as the orange saw sputters and then chokes. “She gets all freaked out,” says Gabriel Frey, laughing as he yanks the starting cord again with one heavily muscled arm, the saw whirring to life. Putting the bar to a trunk of shaggy, gray-tinged bark, he begins to cut, the grinding sound of the saw echoing through the damp, green-lit stand.

The felled tree is one of three that Frey and Greenlaw carefully picked out of the woods on the cool, damp July day in far northern Maine. Plenty of logs are hauled out of the forest there, in Aroostook County, which is home to a chunk of the North Maine Woods, a 3.5 million-acre expanse of commercial timberland. But Frey and Greenlaw, and the stand of gray-barked trees, are part of a tradition that’s far older than any timber camp or lumber mill. The trees are Fraxinus nigra, commonly known as black ash or brown ash, which have forever been at the hearts of the lives of Maine’s indigenous tribes.

Greenlaw, a Maliseet forestry scientist working on her PhD at the University of Maine, is at the forefront of the effort to protect the state’s brown ash. The trees are at risk of being wiped out by the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that has been killing ash trees in North America for the better part of 20 years. With the help of Frey, a renowned Passamaquoddy basket maker, as well as the broader Wabanaki basket-making community, the married couple is fighting to preserve the rich tradition the tree supports.

Suzanne Greenlaw does geographic information systems (GIS) research on culturally important brown ash trees in Maine as part of her doctoral degree.

First pounded with the back of an axe into splints, then carefully shaved and cut into strips, brown ash provides the primary material used to weave baskets among the Wabanaki tribes that live across land that is today Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces. From the utilitarian backpack-like basket made of plain-woven ash to more complexly woven and decorated “fancy” baskets, there’s an extensive tradition of basketry shared by the five Wabanaki tribes (four of which are federally recognized in Maine: Micmac, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot). The importance of these baskets throughout the tribes’ histories makes the tree what Darren Ranco calls a cultural keystone species. “It’s very central to the culture,” says Ranco, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maine and a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

Wabanaki origin stories tell of the mythic hero Glooscap shooting an arrow into a brown ash tree, and the Wabanaki people pouring out into the world from the hole in the trunk. More recently, after Wabanaki tribes were forced off their land under European colonization, basketmaking was a means of both economic independence and resistance to assimilation. Until around the 1960s, the potato farming and fishing industries had an extensive need for baskets used in both harvesting and processing, and “fancy” baskets were sold to wealthy summer tourists in places like Bar Harbor and Kennebunk. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a full-time basket maker in nearly every Penobscot and Passamaquoddy household, and the craft was passed down through families, helping to maintain both native languages and familial structures. As Ranco says, “there aren’t that many species that have all of these impacts on the culture.”

It’s a tradition, however, that will soon be forever changed — and quite possibly erased altogether — as the invasive ash borer arrives in Maine, continuing its destructive spread across thirty states in the Midwest and Northeast, as well as adjoining parts of southern Canada.

Native to northern Asia and eastern Russia, the diminutive, jewel-like borer was first documented in Michigan in 2002, and likely arrived some years earlier after hitching a ride on wooden shipping material. The beetles lay their eggs on the bark of ash trees where, after hatching, larvae will bore their way into the trunk, chewing looping tunnels through the wood before digging out chambers where they will mature into their adult form. Then, adult borers will chew their way back out of the trunk, leaving the host tree threaded with damaging channels. Forest Service research conducted in the Midwest has found that a borer infestation can effectively wipe out an otherwise healthy stand of ash in as little as six years. The borer has already killed tens of millions of ash trees across a swath of the United States and southern Canada, and threatens to destroy as many as 9 billion as it continues to spread — far more than the 4 billion American chestnut trees that were decimated by blight in the early 20th century, significantly remaking the ecology of Eastern forests.

Earlier this year, ash borers were found near Madawaska, Maine, less than 100 miles away from the stand where Frey harvested trees.

Despite its outsized cultural significance for Wabanaki tribes, brown ash is not a common tree in Maine, and does not have the same economic value in the timber industry as white ash, which is used in manufacturing baseball bats, axe hafts and other tool handles, flooring and cabinetry, and as firewood. Ash species comprise about 5 percent of Maine’s hardwood forest overall, and 2 percent or less are brown ash; only about a fifth of those trees are fit for making baskets. With the forest cover in Maine now returned to pre-settlement levels (at 90 percent woods, it is the most forested state in the country) the prospect of finding brown ash among all of the oaks, maples, birches, spruces, cedars, pines, and other trees can be a challenge. But if there is going to be any kind of concerted effort to protect culturally and economically important stands of brown ash, the locations of those trees need to be known in the first place. Greenlaw is developing a tool that will help forestry managers do just that.

As she walks through the ferns alongside the river, dressed in a light, navy blue rain jacket and heavy rubber boots, Greenlaw explains how this stand of brown ash and others like it inform the geographic information systems (GIS) map she is developing. “I did a study looking at four locations and did a bunch of measurements: vegetation, canopy, soil, and whatever,” she says, in order to try to define — in Western-science terms — the habitat that results in basket-quality ash. She found that only one factor, soil type, was statistically significant. Brown ash often grows in swamps, but those trees tend to yield wood that is unsuitable for weaving. The well-drained soils of a floodplain are more likely to result in trees that are good for basketry: straight, supple, and relatively free of knots. A fact that, while confirmed by Greenlaw’s research, was already well-understood by ash harvesters and weavers. That’s why she incorporates a lot more data than just soil type into the tool she’s building. “I don’t use only what is statistically significant in my model. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Greenlaw says.

Gabriel Freyis a 13th-generation Passamaquoddy basket maker (he can track 13, could be more). “Basketmaking in our culture goes back to our creation story.”

“It really involves combining Western forestry science with indigenous forestry science. It’s not just looking for the tallest tree or finding the most trees in a particular location,” says Ranco, who sits on Greenlaw’s dissertation committee and is part of the Ash Task Force, a group comprised of natural resource managers, basket makers, and forestry scientists working to combat the borer. “When we say ‘basket-quality ash’ that means a very particular thing for the basketmaking community,” Ranco says. In addition to the tree itself being relatively straight, the fibers in each growth ring generally need to be smooth and straight in order to yield strips suitable for weaving.

Greenlaw takes a lot of different factors into account as she works to develop a Western-science understanding of where such ash trees grow. It’s well understood among ash harvesters that a tree will be brittle if it grows too close to cedar, for example, so she has a layer on her GIS map for hardwood companion species, allowing her to avoid that association on a landscape scale. Layered over Landsat satellite images of hardwood and mixed hardwood forests across Maine, Greenlaw can locate places where these various determining factors — soil type, distance to a river, stand age, and flow accumulation (the way water runs downhill) — all overlap, pointing to possible locations of basket-quality trees. The tool, which is still being refined, is becoming increasingly effective, but it only helps point the user toward ideal ash habitat, not actual ash. Once, Greenlaw trudged into the woods in search of a new ash stand, and found nothing but red maple.

It’s a trial-and-error process in part because that’s the nature of research, but also because there isn’t much in the scientific literature to build upon. “There’s not a whole lot of research for native cultural materials. We have to begin from the beginning,” Greenlaw says. “It’s not like they can go to the Forest Service and say, ‘Can you give me a tool for this sort of cultural knowledge?’”

There aren’t any known areas of brown ash on Penobscot land like the stand Greenlaw and Frey visited, at least not according to Russ Roy, the forest manager for the Penobscot Nation. “If you’re standing there and can see ten good stems, that’s a pretty nice spot,” he says. Currently, the tribe’s foresters come across brown ash mostly by chance. “We find them when we’re flagging out a stop line for a harvest” of other timber, he says, “and we’ll make a note of them.” But with 100,000 acres in the tribe’s trust land, he’d like to be more targeted when looking for ash. “What soils are we looking at, topography, riparian zones,” Roy asks, “where should we be looking besides where we are already seeing it?”

“The choices through assimilation were either to assimilate or lose all of your cultural connections, or you find a way to keep your traditions going,” Frey says. “Basketmaking in the communities was a tool of rebellion against oppression.”

Knowing where existing stands are located is still guarded within the basketmaking community. Harvesters are protective of ash stands, and there are concerns within the basketmaking community that Greenlaw’s mapping efforts will make public the closely held locations of trees upon which they rely. Because of those sensitivities, she requests that The Verge not name the river, give specific details about the location of the ash stand, or show the detailed maps that she’s working on.

Greenlaw hopes that her tool will narrow the search for brown ash stands for people within the community. The hope is that the tool will help the Penobscot and other tribal forestry departments continue ongoing efforts to bank seeds from basket-quality trees, as well as build an inventory of ash stands so that more direct interventions can be implemented if and when the borers arrive. With more than 300,000 acres of tribal land within Maine, there could very well be brown ash stands out there that are unknown both to harvesters and natural-resource managers. Greenlaw wants the tribes — as well as private forestry companies, land trusts, and managers of federal lands like the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — to know where they have brown ash so they can make informed decisions when the time comes.

Going back to 2002, the primary means of attempting to control the borer’s spread has been selective harvesting: dense stands of ash are thinned out with the hopes that the borer will not spread between the more isolated trees. That has not proven to be the case. Individual ash can also be girdled to make a so-called trap tree: the bark is removed all the way around the trunk, drawing borers in the vicinity with the promise of exposed sapwood. The tree is then cut and burned while the borers are overwintering inside.

Other control options include introducing a species of parasitic wasps that is native to the ash borer’s historic range, which could have unintended consequences. Another option is the targeted use of insecticide in high-value trees or stands.

“If you found an area that had good quality brown ash, would it make sense to inject it [with insecticide] to keep those trees going? I don’t think anyone has come to a definitive answer to that,” Roy says. “It’s a potential option. I don’t know if we’ve gotten to the point where we can say it’s the option.”

When the emerald ash borer was found in far northern Maine, it came as a surprise. The bug needs a clear line of ash trees to move from point A to point B, and it was expected that the borer would first move into southern Maine (where it has now also been documented), which borders already infested portions of New Hampshire. Despite laws against bringing firewood from out of state, and various public education campaigns focused on not moving firewood great distances within Maine’s borders, it’s suspected that a cord of ash driven up to camp from some infested area in the south brought the bug to Aroostook County. Quarantines are now in place in both northern and southern Maine to try to slow the ash borer’s spread, but the insect was recently documented in Portland as well. It’s only a matter of time before it spreads throughout the state. With the inevitability of emerald ash borers, some in the basketmaking community are more focused on how to prepare for a future without brown ash.

“I harvest twice what I am going to use,” says Jeremy Frey, Gabriel’s brother, who was the first basket maker to ever win best in show at the renowned Santa Fe Indian Market. “I do that because I know that we can’t stop them.” Jeremy believes that brown ash will be gone in 15 years, and he hopes that he’ll have stockpiled as much as a decade’s worth of material by then.

“It’s thousands of years of native technology gone — gone,” Jeremy says of the threat. The prospect of losing everything that brown ash represents makes him upset and depressed, even if he knows that as an individual artist, he will continue to make his work with one material or another.

A recent exhibition at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, which specializes in Wabanaki art, highlighted both ash conservation efforts and alternative materials basket makers are exploring. The show, which Ranco helped curate, featured baskets made with felted wool, silk, newspaper, and plastic.

Jeremy showed work at a Santa Fe gallery during the Indian Market this summer, where he sold a piece made half with ash and half with birch bark — a style, he says, that’s designed to introduce his collectors to a new material that will invariably feature more heavily in his work. “By the time the ash is gone,” he says, “I’ll have two lines: one with ash, and one without.”

Passamaquoddy basket maker Gabriel Frey.
Gabriel Frey hand-hauls harvested ash trees from the Maine forest.

The woods alongside the river in Aroostook County are punctuated with the slowly decomposing tops of felled trees that were previously harvested for basketmaking. Above roughly the eight-foot mark, where the trunk of an immature brown ash opens into the crown, the wood is too knotty to use for basketmaking. It’s the kind of ingrained practice that looks odd, if not wasteful, to outsiders, but is part of the indigenous knowledge base that has helped maintain the stand for generations.

“You’ll see them all through here. You’ll see like mature ash, younger ash,” Gabriel says, pointing out trees of varied thickness. “I’m checking this one,” he says, notching a promising-looking trunk with two sharp hits of a hatchet, the small wedge of wood revealing the growth rings inside. The bone-white strips that Gabriel uses to make his refined, leather-accented pack baskets each represent a year’s worth of growth. “My history with this stand is that it has really thick rings, generally,” he says, pointing out the width with the hatchet’s edge.

Gabriel’s baskets — which his grandfather, a carpenter, taught him to make — have begun to earn a similar degree of recognition to Jeremy’s. This year, he was picked as a United States Artist fellow in traditional arts, which comes with a $50,000 award, and he also earned a second-place ribbon in the basketry category at Santa Fe. Although he still has a day job working as a massage therapist, his career as an artist is ascending, even as the ash borer looms.

“He sees himself as a carrier of culture, making his grandfather’s baskets,” Jeremy says of his brother’s work. “He does add a contemporary feel to it, but the base skeleton to it is our family tradition that goes back thousands of years.”

Watching him inspect, notch, and fell the trees, which he then carries out of the woods and up a steep, muddy embankment on his shoulder, it’s easy to understand why, for Gabriel, basketmaking and brown ash are inseparable. The baskets aren’t just a reflection of the brown ash and its unique properties, but of the places where it grows, and the culture that has both developed from brown ash and is determined to protect it. Frey feels he cannot weave without them.

After pounding and soaking the ash, the material is further prepared by stripping it to consistent and unified specifications.
Gabriel Frey works on a “Mac-pack,” a leather-lined basket with a custom design that includes a herringbone weave detail.

Greenlaw recently won a $10,000 grant from the Forest Service (with cost-sharing through the Bureau of Indian Affairs) to run her model on tribal land across Maine. In doing so, she will be working with natural resource managers from the tribes, the basketmaking and harvester communities (not all basket makers cut and process their own ash like the Frey brothers do), as well as Wabanaki high school students.

First, Greenlaw will run her model, and check what it finds against the expertise of those in the community who know where ash is harvested. After cross-referencing the scientific data with the indigenous knowledge and getting the best sense of where basket-quality trees may be found, it will be time to go into the woods to inventory trees with the help of the native students.

Then, when the time comes, it will be up to the tribes to decide how to protect the trees. They will be able to make informed decisions when supplied with a better understanding of how much basket-quality ash they have, as well as resources like a field manual for ash inventory and protection developed by Tyler Everett, a master’s degree candidate at University of Maine.

“If foresters say, ‘We don’t have a whole lot of brown ash,’ I don’t put a lot of stock in that because they aren’t in areas where brown ash grows,” Greenlaw says. High-value timber species are generally found in upland habitats, away from the floodplains and moving water where basket trees thrive. Basket makers, Greenlaw says, “don’t use a whole lot of materials to get what we need. It’s not like we clear out a whole stand. Once you know where a good stand is, you can cut it one year and then come back in a few years and cut again.” It’s not one and done.

Every ash tree in Maine cannot be saved from the borer. Instead, Greenlaw is trying to give basket trees a fighting chance to survive — so that basket makers can continue to come back to places like the banks of the river we visited and cut again.