Judy Waters: The once, and future?, stately elms

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LUNENBURG — Tooling down Pittsfield's Route 20 in early April, nine teammates were seen taking positions on the diamond at Clapp Park's Pellerin Field; in the distance Bousquet's trails were still white with snow. What was different in the neighborhood were a few more solar panels atop private homes.

Still leafless tree branches were clearly outlined. Soon West Pittsfield would be a much busier, leafier, and greener place. For the moment. it was just a quintessential early spring day in Pittsfield.

A city of open space, streetscapes of Pittsfield had a different arboreal look in the early 20th century when graceful elm trees reached up to the sky in vase-like formation. The stately elms formed a canopy over many Pittsfield Streets, a common sight. In her book, "Mine Eyes Have Seen" physician Dr. Alfreda Withington remarked on these elms, whose height could reach 80-100 feet, and the leafy scene outside her office on South Street near Broad Street. However, a disease caused by the elm bark beetle would bring a devastating change.

In his Mayor's Address of 1912, Kelton B. Miller, who donated land to Springside Park and Pontoosuc Lake Park, announced that steps would be taken to combat the elm bark beetle's harming of Berkshire trees, citing Pittsfield's scenery as a significant asset. He called for the use of "power spraying" of the trees. But the disease persisted. In 1947, an Eagle article cited 177 trees countywide stricken with the disease, up to 40 in Great Barrington. As described in The Berkshire Eagle, an urgent community effort was put forward calling for all municipal services to get involved, helping laypeople know how to identify the disease.

In the 1950s, elm bark beetle disease, or Dutch Elm disease (DED) had been treated with DDT, a pesticide used in WWII. Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" identified DDT as harmful to birds and wildlife. According to Stanford University, "the potentially lethal impact of DDT on birds was first noted in the late 1950s when spraying to control the beetles that carry Dutch elm disease led to a dying out of robins." Researchers discovered that "earthworms were accumulating the persistent pesticide and that the robins eating them were being poisoned." Carson's book contributed to the start of the environmental movement.

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Found to have originated in Asia, elm trees in Europe had been afflicted by the elm bark beetle. A pathologist from the Netherlands first isolated the fungus connected to the disease in 1921. Following WWII, the disease spread across Europe and North America.

Pittsfield's Hebert Arboretum, located along Route 7 at Springside Park, has been restoring the growth of elms. According to information on the site, "Elm Allee" was a road lined with elms in the 1800s leading to Springside House, then called Elmhurst. The elms died and were replaced with silver maples. Work on the Allee at the Arboretum has been ongoing and 20 disease-resistant Princeton elms have been planted. (hebertarboretum.org)

Mayor Miller, a former publisher of The Berkshire Eagle, also initiated the the setting up of a commission in 1913 to establish a "system of parks" for the city. He donated 10 acres to Springside Park for "the good of the entire community " and his family later donated another 75 acres, according to the Berkshire Historical Society. Today, Pittsfield's many open spaces, public parks and conservation sites can help the city's resiliency to climate change. Trees can help filter pollution from the air and help soak up water during heavy storms. According to Mass Audubon, because of climate change, "Stronger storms can lead to erosion, weaken a tree's connection to the soil." Also, some types of forests could migrate northward in response to warmer climate and this could affect foliage and wildlife.

Although Pittsfield and Berkshire streets are no longer lined with the handsome elms, today in many parts of North America, disease-resistant elms are being planted and cared for. The trees are highly valued for their beauty, grace and for their history. Pittsfield's famous historic elm, in the center of Park Square, had been removed in the 1800s but became a distinguished part of the city's heritage.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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