The felled champion white ash tree created a big hole in the sky.

A Different Kind of Earth Day, 2023

A guest post written by George F. Thompson, owner and publisher of George F Thompson Publishing

Introducing the ‘Champion’ White Ash Tree

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The champion white ash tree on Oak Ridge Circle in Staunton, Virginia.

A year ago, 19 beautiful white ash trees (Fraxinus americana) provided shade and habitat on our residential property in Staunton, a historic town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

One, in particular, was likely a champion tree by any measure. Squirrels nested in it, and a countless array of birds, including an occasional red-tailed hawk, would make its branches their home. It was immense, standing at 75–80 feet tall, and its graceful canopy provided welcome shade to an understory of eastern dogwoods.

Our daughter, Haley, played beneath it as a kid, as did grandson Coleman, who would always find an Easter egg or two or three at its base and crevices on those special Easter Sundays.

One Small Pest, One Voracious Appetite

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The arborist and his skilled crew needed four full days in order to fell the champion white ash tree.

The ash trees were also attractive to the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), native to northeastern Asia, which found a kind of paradise in North American forests. First identified in Canton, Michigan (near Detroit) in 2002—though estimated to have arrived some time in the late 1980s—this exotic creature has created widespread havoc and destruction to one of the nation’s most revered and utilitarian tree species.

In Staunton alone, conservative estimates suggest that at least 20,000 to 30,000 ash trees have already died due to the voracious appetite of this small insect. One ash borer alone can kill a single tree.

Over a Century of History

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The diameter of the champion white ash tree was four feet at the base and 3.5-3.75 feet at breast height.

This will be the first Earth Day of living in Staunton without our beloved ash trees, and their loss is a true lament. Especially the big champion tree. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) of a fully mature 70–year–old ash tree is approximately 1.5 feet.

The DBH of our champion was 3.5– 3.75 feet and its base 4 feet! The arborist and his skilled crew had never seen an ash tree as large as the champion, and a careful count of its tree rings resulted in 150 years. That puts its birth at circa 1873.

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A crew member carefully counts 150 tree rings for the champion tree.

In 1873 alone, Ulysses S. Grant began his second term as President; Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer had just engaged the Lakota people for the first time as the nation continued its Indian Wars out West; P. T. Barnum’s circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” debuted in New York City; the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in Fredonia, New York; Puerto Rico celebrated its Emancipation Day in which its enslaved peoples were set free; and the Panic of 1873 triggered the first Great Depression in the U.S.

A Mighty Loss

Of course, in 1873 our big ash tree was just a tiny seedling in a large forest. It did not know that, around a century later, it would be a prized tree in a developing residential neighborhood. It did not know that, in its old age, it would be stricken by a tiny insect from halfway around the world. It did not know that our family would love that tree as if it were a member of the family, and it did not know that we would celebrate its majesty just as we would grieve its loss.

As for the bachelor squirrel who made a home high up in the champion’s canopy? Well, it has since moved over to a silver maple, as Nature continues to provide in its own mysterious way.

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Grandson Coleman helps measure the base of the champ.

Interested in Other Environmentally-Conscious Reads?

Check out these books from George F. Thompson Publishing

Occupying Massachusetts

Sandra Matthews, David Brule, Suzanne Gardinier

A revealing look at how Native American lands in Massachusetts have been transformed.


Brett Kallusky, Matthew Coolidge

A visual discovery of a land not thought of in a historic California place!

Our Time on Earth

Tom Young, Aprile Gallant

Tom Young’s most ambitious photo book to date renders our time on Earth in new ways.

At Home in the Northern Forest

John Huddleston, Bill McKibben

A new look at one of the world’s largest forests!

Shenandoah Valley Apples

Scott Jost, Scott Hamilton Suter

The first photo-text book ever published on the history of Shenandoah Valley apples.

Fire Ghosts

Patricia Galagan, Philip Metcalf, Craig Allen, William Debuys, Katherine Ware

An innovative way of seeing how a major forest recovers from a devastating fire!

Florida’s Changing Waters

Lynne Buchanan, Robert L. Knight Ph.D., Jason M. Evans Ph.D

Lynne Buchanan began photographing Florida’s inland waters to create artistic records of her connection with those waters and to learn lessons from being in the present moment and aligning with the flow of life.

Park Place

David Heberlein, Scott Herring

A sometimes humorous but always perceptive look at how we experience national parks and monuments out West.