Joco Opinion

The Bubble — Keeping nature at a safe distance

Updated: 2013-07-30T21:10:02Z

By SARAH SMITH NESSEL

Special to The Star

So now it’s the emerald ash borer.

When you’re dealing with the outdoors, it’s always something: Bugs or heat or ice or weeds. Poisonous spiders and snakes. Sunburn.

Those are just a few reasons I’m grateful to be a resident of a 21st-century developed nation: I don’t have to think about nature much, given that nature spends nearly all of its time outdoors, and I do not. I’ve adopted this lifestyle thanks largely to my husband, who is city born and bred and passionate about the indoors. Remote, to us, is a TV control device, not a vacation theme.

And so I’ve never given much thought to the emerald ash borer, an insect apparently capable of destruction of epic proportions. They’re native to Asia, they wipe out ash trees by the millions and they’ve been spreading across the U.S. for some time now.

There’s concern that increasingly severe weather, like the extreme drought we experienced last summer, will make even more ash trees vulnerable, as the insects prefer to attack trees that are stressed. Don’t believe in climate change? Don’t talk to me about it. Talk to researchers who track the geographical ranges of various species. Talk to the emerald ash borer.

The Star has attempted to draw my attention to this problem several times, most notably in a disturbing article last summer, when the insect was first discovered in the Kansas City area — specifically, Platte County. In explaining how other areas of the U.S. were dealing with the invasion, the article sounded like an account of the bubonic plague, complete with quarantines and phrases such as “fatal 100 percent of the time” and “fought to stay alive.”

I read that article the way many of us in Johnson County read grim news about other parts of the metro area: with a sip of my morning coffee, a “how sad” shake of the head and a calm turning of the page to see what else was going on in the world.

That’s how it is when you live a sheltered, if not quite pampered, life. Destructive insects are added to the long list of things Other People have to worry about, things like crime and low-achieving schools and crumbling infrastructure.

Then your luck runs out, and the emerald ash borer comes calling. Or gnawing or burrowing or something. Whatever it does, it’s now doing it in Johnson County.

If you’re good at denial, like me, you can pretend you don’t have any ash trees. How could you possibly know one tree from another, when the articles you’ve read didn’t include any helpful identifying photos for the nature-averse suburbanite? It’s not like you could just do a Google Images search or something. That would take time away from Facebook and a week’s worth of “The Daily Show” on the DVR.

Eventually, curiosity and a desire to put off more productive tasks overcame me, and I did that Google search. Yep — the two big (and only) trees in our front yard are ash trees. Perhaps they’re the very same variety that had the misfortune of being planted around the grounds of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, where hundreds of ash trees are being cut down in an effort to stop the bug’s spread.

No such panic is under way here — although the phrase “emergency quarantine” did get my attention. That’s what Kansas officials enacted after the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed, earlier this month, that the emerald ash borer had been found in a tree near the Johnson County Landfill.

The quarantine applies to things like transporting firewood or ash products or byproducts, which I’m pretty sure I never do. Then again, I was pretty sure I didn’t have any ash trees.

Tree experts urge calm in this crisis, which is good, because I’m not inclined to spend hundreds of dollars on toxic sprays to kill a bug that might not even be in my vicinity. I’ve always thought of my lawn and landscaping as a Darwinian ecosystem where survival of the fittest rules. That’s nature’s way. Plus, it gives me an excuse not to water anything very often.

So if the emerald ash borer has what it takes to conquer my trees, so be it. Like most of America, I’ll be indoors, where awareness of nature’s warning signs is ever more remote.

Freelancer Sarah Smith Nessel writes The Bubble every other week.

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