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Dutch Elm Disease: A National Epidemic

Larry Rankin, an experiened writer, enjoys creative writing in all forms, from literary to mainstream.


I can’t see anymore. The rage has made me blind. There was a time that it was all so clear, and if I’d just been given the chance, I could’ve fixed it. I no longer want that opportunity, because at this point I’d just f*** it up like every other soulless, sold-out piece of sh** in the world.

Guns blaze and more people die. The rich hide and reap the profits of our fears. Reality moves so much that I am perpetually awash in confusion. Words become meaningless and actions become too dull to impress.

I look out my window and see a dead tree. Dutch Elm Disease, or whatever. I don’t know. I’m not a tree doctor. It’s f***ing dead. It’s going to fall over and hurt someone one of these days. That’s what dead things do. They fall over and hurt the living.

This particular dead thing is on the edge of my land and hangs over the property of my neighbors. To my annoyance my neighbors, blissfully unaware, insist on living right under it, parking their cars, walking their dogs, playing catch with their baseballs.

Why does it fall on me to be the only one that understands this tree will kill them? Why can’t they understand my gentle pleas that they live their lives with just a little caution until this lifeless, rotten death finally falls over?

A windstorm, then another, and another. I lie in bed at night listening to it howl, waiting to hear the crash. Everyone else sleeps. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. Everyone dead asleep while my sleep is dead and my eyes are open.


Another paycheck comes in Friday. Today is Wednesday and I’m just exhausted. I have no saw. I have no ladder. I have no money, and the hazard is apparent only to me. I look out the window and that dead stick sickens me. I look down. I look up. I look down. I look up. Each time knowing it will have fallen over and killed a car, a dog, a child, a little old lady.

I remember a dead credit card, one that is so near its max I simply make minimum payments. Maybe there is enough there for a ladder and a chainsaw? I call the company and they say my payment has yet to post.

Never mind. And back we are to all those lacking of means can do when they see a problem. Worry! Nauseate! Deprive yourself of rest until you’re so weak you couldn’t do anything about it even if you had the capital!

Another night of howling winds. Every time I close my eyes I see that old, sick elm falling and crushing the whole of humanity. Nobody else even seems to notice there’s a problem.

Friday comes. I’m able to put aside $150 from the budget. With $100 I purchase a telescoping electric saw that also converts to a chainsaw. I am lucky enough to find a six foot aluminum step ladder for under $40. I am glowing with pride over these purchases. With them I shall save the world from certain annihilation.


When I get home and size up the tree, really look it over, I feel like a fool. A hardwood, no less, and over 40 feet in height. What do I got to combat this. A ten inch saw on the end of a stick, a little ladder. How absurd! What a joke I am!

To fell that dead behemoth with what amount to toys. I’ve never felt so small. I’ve never felt like I mattered less. And what about professionals? What about getting rid of that tree the right way? That is a game for the wealthy, not the poor. $500, $600, $700. It’s not an option.

Nausea. Acid in my throat. I can’t not try. Here’s this bad thing that’s going to hurt my neighbors. I’ll take off a little at a time. With uncertainty I climb the ladder. I extend the saw. Can I cut it there? It all feels so awkward.

I’m able to take a limb off. Well, that’s something, but I still can’t help but think this is a battle I can’t win, or what if I make things even worse: a dead tree with a big chunk out of its side is much worse.

My throat is dry. My nerves are raddled. I must do this! I must do this now! I can’t live another night like this, with retched death hanging over me. With an easy cut out of the way, I set my sights on the magnum opus.

About 15 feet up, the body of the tree splits in two. The slimmer of the appendages jutted out over nothing of particular importance. This is the limb I did away with first. The confidence builder.

The other limb isn’t so much a limb as the continuation of the body of the tree. It’s very thick. It’s very much perpendicular to the earth, at least the part I can get to. Telescoping saws are meant to hang over limbs, not be held against what is essentially the trunk and used like a chainsaw.

This is also the part of the tree that continues up 40 feet and eventually hangs over my neighbors’ property. Cutting where I think I’ll be able to cut, it’s guesswork as to whether it will cause great damage.

But dead things must fall, and at least this is in my control. At least it will only result in a damaged car or carport and not death. It is with this resolve, I continue.

It proves excessively difficult to balance myself on the ladder, balance the saw, and perform an effective cut. At one point I go a rung beyond prudence and find myself hurdling towards the ground. Luckily neither the saw or I are broken.

All of this has eaten up time. Waiting for the paycheck to post, finding the necessary tools, conquering fear, developing a strategy, but little by little I nip at the looming death.

An interesting fact about chainsaws, and this is all saws with a chain, gas or electric, a fact I had forgotten about: NEW CHAINS HAVE TO BE ADJUSTED SEVERAL TIMES AS THEY ARE BROKEN IN.

I weaken the tree and hear an awful commotion. The chain has left its bar. With unpracticed difficulty, I tighten it. It’s afternoon. Soon my neighbors will be home. I again start chipping away, bit by bit.

My shoulders are sore from holding the saw so awkwardly, but I endure as my body burns. I force the saw a little too much and a noise ten times that of the last one.

Things are seriously f***ed at this point. I’m going to have to take this saw apart and really learn about its insides. If the tree wasn’t unstable before, it sure as hell is now, and my neighbors will be coming home any minute.

Heart racing, I just can’t get calm enough to fix the damn thing. My neighbor on the other side, a self-proclaimed master mechanic and good Samaritan, pulls in. I flail my arms, the universal sign of distress, and call for his attention. He purposefully keeps his head down, ignores me, and walks into his home.

It’s at this point my endangered neighbors pull in, ignore the ladder, the cut limb, the electric cord, all the clear evidence, and park their vehicles directly under the weakened body of the elm.

I am in crisis!

I make my way over to speak to the matriarch of the family, an elderly woman who requires the aid of a cane to walk.

“Ma’am, I hate to bother you, but I’m trying to get rid of this dead tree and my chainsaw has broken. I may not be able to get it fixed before it’s dark, and the tree is weakened. Would you please move your vehicles until I can get the tree knocked down?”

A look of understanding, “Yeah, I can get them moved.”

I am overcome with relief. If the tree falls this night, it will probably fall where I’ve scored it and all will be fine because the vehicles will be moved. If not, I’ll get the tree fell the next day. It is with this bit of calmness, this bit of sanity that someone besides myself finally understands the danger, that I begin calculated work on fixing the chainsaw.

I actually get the saw mended ahead of schedule. Perhaps I can go ahead and finish before nightfall? I look out the window, and to my chagrin, the vehicles are still parked under the tree. I wait an hour and another and another and complete darkness.

And my life is complete misery and loneliness. Am I invisible? I cannot take one more sleepless night of fear—of paranoia—of staring into the darkness praying to not see that the proverbial “other shoe” has dropped.

I know a place that sells stupidity. For $7 you can buy enough of it to be so blind dumb you won’t worry about a thing. Judge if you must, but to me it’s better than church, if for only a little while.


I wake up with a start and feeling the clause, “if for only a little while.” Beside my bed is a bottle with a few drops of stupid still left. I think about downing it, but decide to vomit instead.

Afterward I make my way to the window. The vehicles are gone. I grab my equipment and head out to the dead elm feeling a type of empty, dead hungover that probably is best not paired with power tools.

But I don’t care.

The tree is still as dead and dangerous as it ever was, but I’m dead, too. When everything is dead, when all is numbness, when nothing is right or wrong, righteous or evil, when you put one foot in front of the other because that’s what you do….

The tree fell that day. I say it like it was easy, but it really wasn’t. I had to fight it from every angle. When it finally went, I was cutting directly under its path to fall. I moved listlessly to one side as what was probably over half a ton of wood crashed to the ground. I never even flinched.

I didn’t care.


Why are we here? Why the f*** are we here for? To ignore our neighbors’ pleas for help and blow one another’s heads off in the name of God? It doesn’t make sense.

I don’t waste my time caring anymore. I no longer know right from wrong, nor would it matter if I did. I just hate. Numb, dead f***ing hate for all of it, and I’m so much better off for it.

© 2017 Larry Rankin


Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on January 27, 2018:

Linda and Kenna: thanks for dropping by:-)

Kenna McHugh from Northern California on January 18, 2018:

This is a big problem in Sacramento, CA.

Linda Robinson from Cicero, New York on January 18, 2018:

Wow loved all your intense descriptions and explanations of Dutch Elm Disease, your interpretation was brilliant and so well done. A superhub to make your thoughts go into many different directions. A great hub and a great read. I am looking forward to reading more of your work. Take care. Linda

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 24, 2017:

Larry: I'm glad you enjoyed it:-)

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on November 19, 2017:

That is quite a story, Larry. I couldn't stop reading it I had to keep going to see what the outcome would be. It kind of reminds me of when I was a boy in the early 1960s and we had a terrible gypsy moth problem in the Pocono Mts. of northeastern PA. The gypsy moths eat all of the leaves from every tree in our area. It looked like winter time with all of the leaves eaten away. Many trees died because of the gypsy moths. Your story brought that memory back to me.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 14, 2017:

The dead tree makes for excellent symbolism, especially in conveying depression and, well...death:-)

Getting away from the literary work here, but Dutch Elm Disease is especially sad. It has decimated the species. A dead tree, when it is a natural occurrence, is actually a harbinger of a lot of new life. It's good for the soil and all the little creature within that aerate the soil, and other things for that matter. But a single species getting hit like this, it's a really bad deal.

Anyway, take from the story what you will. In my mind there are infinite parallels that can be made between the death of this species and the metaphorical deaths and recent failures of the human species.

Always appreciate it so much when you chime in..

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on November 13, 2017:

Dead trees are very sad; the death of a whole species of trees is sadder still. The sadness can infect one's soul. I once illustrated an entire hub with pictures of dead trees. The tress were meant to be symbolic of the people killed by capital punishment. Now I'm sad too. I'm going to go look at pictures of flowers.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 13, 2017:

Linda: I'm glad for it to be on Letterpile, but I don't understand why it's reading as a personal essay.

The story is inspired by something I really did, but the characters are fiction.

Always happy to get feedback from you.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 13, 2017:

DDE: thanks for stopping by.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2017:

This is a powerful story, Larry. To be honest, I was wondering how I was going to respond because I suspected that the story was true. I'm happy to see from a previous comment that it was "primarily" fiction. It's an excellent piece of writing.

DDE on November 11, 2017:

Trees are beautiful its a shame it has to die from such disease or cut by someone who doesn't care even if no disease.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 10, 2017:

Louise: always glad when you drop by:-)

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 10, 2017:

Jo: I wasn't trying to be difficult. I listed it as creative writing. I'm guessing it got changed when it was moved to Letter Pile?

It doesn't concern me a great deal if folks view it as autobiographical, but it is primarily a work of fiction.

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks for pointing that out:-)

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 10, 2017:

That is an powerful story Larry. Dutch Elm Disease has been a problem in my area too. Such a shame as so many trees are dying.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on November 09, 2017:

Regarding your response to my comment: Your work is listed as 'personal essay'.

Nikki Khan from London on November 08, 2017:

Yup...Alas..can't help it.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Nikki: I hate when trees die. Can't save them all:-/

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

JG: I always love your colorful responses. I'm sorry you had to fight so many dead trees lately.

I do not mind in the least that this story wasn't your favorite. That's life. Some things you like. Some you don't. I'm just always so grateful for your feedback.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Shyron: I really did fall off my little ladder felling an elm, but I want to point out that this story is a fiction.

It is nerve racking when you have a big tree threatening disaster. Cutting them down is dangerous. Costs a fortune to have a professional do it for you. I took every precaution to be safe, because t it's one of those things where you can get hurt with the best laid plan. Sorry to hear your husband had a fall.

I'm glad you found the story suspensful, of course I threw in an anticlimax at the end.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Heidi: while the story is a narrative paralleling the ills of society, Dutch Elm Disease is a huge problem!

While the work is a fiction, I really have had problems with this disease. I still have a few left, but they're dropping like flies. Sad:-/

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

FlourishAnyway: it is raw, which can be a good thing, but I don't feel like it's my best work. I feel like I could suffer over it a little more and make it better.

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Jo: I choose meditation and weightlifting:-)

Just want to point out I have cut down a tree or two in my life, but this story is a work of fiction.

Always enjoy hearing from you:-)

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Bill: on one hand there are the kind things we do every day that often go unnoticed. On the other hand there is all the toil and ugliness of the world that can sometimes make us so angry we can't see.

Our main character is a neurotic person who has allowed his neurosis to drain his humanity.

Alcohol serves as the quick fix patch that it is in this story. Doesn't do anything to help in the long run.

I always appreciate your responses.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Nida: all you can do is read, write, listen, and improve. Takes time. It's a long and meandering process and you're never as good as you can be.

Thanks so much for stopping by.

Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on November 08, 2017:

Roadmonkey: this is very much a layered work. I was going for a literary rather than a mainstream feel here. I had to put it together quicker than I like and I feel like it could be refined.

So glad you enjoyed it.

Nikki Khan from London on November 08, 2017:

Beautiful combination of dialogues,perfect story telling,just amazing,felt sorry for poor tree.

jgshorebird on November 07, 2017:

Very well written, as always, but...I didn't feel this one. Perhaps it is because I have axed, sawed, chain-sawed so many damned trees (far larger) that I couldn't get into it. As an aside, after Hurricane Irma, after all the newest downed trees in my small yard, near a lake, canal and swamp -- my chainsaw finally gave in. I shall repair it before the next storm maybe -- or before the next downed oak, elm, Chinese maple, etc. And that was just one storm. There have been so many dead chainsaws and empty beers now. So the subtle parts of the story would not come -- for me -- this night. But the damned story is still working on me.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on November 07, 2017:

Larry, I was holding my breath when you fell off the ladder, I relived what happened to my husband when he fell off the ladder onto a steel fence post in 2005, and still suffers from the after effects (Count Down to a Miracle). Right now our neighbor has a 40 foot high Weeping Willow that will fall on our shed if the wind comes from the south or on his house if the wind is from the north.

I am glad you got the tree cut down.

Blessings always

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 07, 2017:

Okay, while certainly you were expressing your feelings on a number of issues (I think we're all a little neurotic!), I'll take another perspective.

The Dutch Elm disease has devastated the elms in our area. I have one of the few remaining and living American Elm trees in our neighborhood. And it takes quite a bit of professional (aka expensive) tree care to keep it that way. Hmm... that's a whole other story line.

Anyway, I think we can all relate! Thanks for sharing with us!

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 07, 2017:

This was written with such raw intensity. You are a wonderful writer, Larry.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on November 07, 2017:

Wonderful writing, Larry. I choose church, or look for the good. It's always there, but it's been a hard year.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 07, 2017:

Intense frustration, anger, angst, fear, this one has it all, and oddly it is a story we all can relate to. God help us all and damned it all to hell, I gave up drinking.

Nida Ormo from Bacolod City, Philippines on November 07, 2017:

I really love to read the stories and I want to write it but I don't know how to start

RoadMonkey on November 07, 2017:

An excellent piece of writing. So many different levels and yes, people seem to care less about others these days and not to notice anything other than what the advertisers and the news tell them to care about!

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