I live in the woods, but there’s enough of a clearing around my little house to let in some sunshine, so flowers and shrubs can grow. Only three trees occupy the clearing: an oak in front and a maple and an ash out back. The ash stands closest to the house, by the screened porch and outside my kitchen window. I’ve appreciated this closeness. For the nearly twenty years I’ve lived here, the ash has been a good companion.
Goldfinches have filled the ash tree’s fine spring foliage, their bright breasts flashing, in fluttery shows of hops, lopes, and leaps. Squirrels have raced along its limbs. My kids have sprawled under its canopy. My dog Mocha, watching the furry and feathered creatures that regularly visit this tree, has enjoyed endless reasons to bark. Waking up on a winter’s day, I’ve judged the nighttime accumulation according to how much snow sits on its branches. And on a summer’s evening, the ash has kept the porch cool, its foliage filtering the late light and casting shifting shadows across the screens.
But this particular summer, the tree makes me sad, sad, sad. Almost as soon as it formed leaves, it began to shed them. What little foliage now remains has browned on the branches, a discordant changing, brittle and frail. It’s strange to see an autumnal ash in July, when everything else is lush with vibrant greens and colorful blooms. The tree’s trunk looks riveted; some of its bark, stripped, sickly. The ash is dying.
All the ashes are dying.
Woods flank either side of my road, and lately, when I take my morning walk, I notice dead trees all over the place. They’re depressingly conspicuous, these victims of the emerald ash borer beetle. Many of the dead ashes will at least provide a feast for woodpeckers and a habitat for wildlife, but my husband and I will have to take ours down, since its proximity to the house poses a hazard.
So here is my good-bye to a tree, a few words to honor it, as it still stands, reaching for the sky, while the crocosmia and the Rose of Sharon shrubs begin to bloom, while the zucchini and cucumbers ripen, while the first peaches get harvested, while my kids, happy after a trip to the Catskills, look forward to another visit with family in a week’s time, while I write, finishing one work, mulling my next. While the world goes on.
No matter how cloudlessly the sky stretches, how gloriously the daylilies bloom, how happily the birds sing, there is this ash to confront, always this dying ash, forever the tragic tree.
When discussing craft, writers often bring up character motivation because it’s so important, the heart of the story. What does the protagonist desire? Therein lies the fuel to fire the fiction.
But of course, characters are not inexplicably desiring machines. To appreciate a character’s craving for something, we have to understand the reason for the want. The object of desire doesn’t cull a reader’s sympathy. The why of desire does.
Maybe, when dwelling on a main character’s desire, a writer ought to look for The Dying Ash in this character’s life, in whatever shape the ash appears, be it a person, place, or thing. Consider the sickness in the roots, the infestation hiding in the trunk, the frailty in the sheltering branches, the premature shedding of leaves, the disquieting greenness in the scattered foliage. It was loved, sought, trusted, this afflicted beauty. What changed it? What made it unpredictable and dangerous?
Find the pathos on the property. See how it unfurls in the interior landscape of the character, forms buds of longing, hurt, love, and fear, and dapples her dreams, darkens her thoughts…
See how it haunts her. It illuminates her desire. It engenders her need.
Our ash tree this summer—the last summer for our ash—reminds me how, in every person’s life, there is some kind of dying ash: a towering sadness. In every character’s life, too. And it casts great shadows.