Photos of a tree on campus, changing color

The loss of summer. The winter to come.

By Daphne Glatter

Time is running out.

I sit in a wire wicker chair, enthralled by the licking flames of a tree on College Green. I cannot tear my eyes from it. Its canopy arcs over the ground, embracing the land, boughs ablaze in shades of ochre and scarlet, each leaf a single tongue of flame radiant against a clear blue sky. The tree is a beacon, a torch lit by the chill of autumn. It is a funeral pyre, anticipating the austere brilliance of the winter to come. 

The tree is the loss of summer: summers past and future, summers that grow hotter and longer with each passing year, summers that encroach on autumn with a pestilent and sickening warmth. I take in its color greedily, voraciously: I can’t look away. 

I’m not the only one. I watch passersby snap pictures of it, trying to capture the illusion of eternity, trying to trap the frozen likeness of falling leaves and falling autumn within the confines of their cell phone screens. I’m no exception—I spend a half hour trying to do this vision justice.

But no matter the angle, or the camera setting, or how many shots I take, I can’t. The tree and its flames are falling right before my eyes. I can do nothing but stare in mute wonder.

The tree that so captivates me on this shining November afternoon is the white ash, Fraxinus americana. It’s a common tree, native to eastern North America, and remarkably resilient to drought, flood, heat, and cold. For those reasons, it’s one of the most frequently cultivated trees in American cities, and its sturdy timber makes it a popular material for hockey sticks, baseball bats, wooden flooring, and other markers of human habitancy that will likely decay and return to the earth within the next few centuries.

Accounting for both cultivated and wild trees, there are nearly seven billion white ash trees in North America—a number, by coincidence, roughly on par with the global human population. A white ash, however, can live more than 200 years, compared to an average human lifespan of 72.6 years. So the white ash ought to be here long after we’re gone.

Complicating this narrative of the sweeping longevity of nature, though, is the pesky confound of human behavior. Today, the white ash tree faces a major threat in the form of the emerald ash borer, a species of beetle native to northeastern Asia that feeds on various ash species. This insect causes minimal damage in its native range. However, upon its introduction to the United States and Europe via overseas shipping in the early 2000s, the emerald ash borer—unhindered by natural predators and able to feed on trees with no developed resistance to it—has chewed through ash stands at an alarming rate. Tens of millions of trees have fallen to the beetle so far, and its invasion is predicted to become significantly deadlier than Dutch elm disease, which decimated North American elm populations in the mid-20th century. Thus, despite a population measured in the billions, Fraxinus americana is listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature: every ash tree in North America is at risk.

Such, then, is the precarious station of the white ash tree I can’t seem to look away from, the one just outside the Fisher Fine Arts Library on College Green. It’s true that this torch of a tree, this beacon on the green, signals the coming of winter and the ever turning wheel of the seasons. But this tree is a beacon of a different sort, too, for—unlike billions of other ash trees scattered across North America—this white ash is monitored by Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services, and is frequently examined for emerald ash borer infestations. This white ash has a university, a city, a community behind it, to keep it vital and brilliant for decades of Penn students to come. We do not have to worry over its fate, for fate has lined up to give the white ash on College Green a serendipitous turn of fortune: it is visible to all, present and known, and in this way will live in happy ignorance of the blight raging against its peer trees.

As I sit in the wire wicker chair, eyes to the sky and the falling scarlet leaves of the white ash before me, I feel the sun’s passage overhead, the warmth of the afternoon beginning to give way to the brisk winds of early evening. I sprawl in my chair, and wonder for a moment if any passersby are staring at me as I look. Soon, though, I don’t think much of the bodies walking past me, talking, laughing, whispering, gesturing at each other. For now, it’s just me and the tree, and between us a stoic and silent understanding.

For the flames of this white ash in autumn don’t only mean winter, and relative safety from a marauding beetle. This tree has come into its flickering autumn glory in the coming twilight of the fall semester, my first semester, a semester that had both dragged itself by its feet and tumbled over itself toward December, final exams, winter break, and the spring semester to come. I stare at the tree, and feel the minutes, hours, days, and weeks fall away like the rich red leaves spinning to the ground—and I feel that sooner than I will be able to know, I will be here again in a year, two years, three, watching the white ash’s fire die away just as I am now. The tree and the autumn are transient, as am I, navigating the river of the years to come. But unlike me, this tree will have the protection of a university in four years, ten years, and beyond, while I will be on my own, left to face the emerald ash borers of the world without the eyes of Penn Facilities and Real Estate over me.

Even as my thoughts spiral away from me, though, I cannot look away from the blazing canopy above me, and with each passing moment I remain with the tree and its transience for a bit longer, a few stolen seconds beyond the ones now. Time stretches before us, but now, we exist in a present moment of change turning over and under itself on a cloudless autumn day. For now, the tree and its brilliant colors signal vitality, life, and strength, and I am there with it, grateful to share in its falling away to winter. For both of us, the seasons will turn and change, and the years before us will spill away toward a vast sea beyond our sight. Now, though, we exist in a dynamic and present snapshot of the moment, ensconced from the emerald ash borers that nibble away at one’s conscience, whispering thoughts of good careers, a stable income, having a family, whether the planet will still be habitable by 2070. We are no more than present and breathing—and for the moment, that’s enough.

Daphne Glatter is a College freshman from Verona, New Jersey.

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