Atiya Wells discovered the fallen oak tree first, when she was walking along the trails of the meadow. Then she noticed that the ash trees, covered by English Ivy vines, looked sickly.

Vines can strangle trees, denying them sunlight and competing with them for water. In this case the vines, it turned out, were holding up the trees. When the vines weakened, the trees fell.

Scenes of the trails at Backyard Basecamp, where many of the trees have randomly started falling down. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

An unusually large number trees have fallen in the community-tended meadow in Frankford in East Baltimore, to the puzzlement of residents and people who use the park. The meadows, known in the Frankford community as BLISS, had been abandoned for years until Backyard Basecamp, an environmental community organization, took guardianship of it in 2019.

The meadows began to thrive and slowly evolve when the group took over, building trails, planting a community garden and enlisting arborists for tree inventories. But the quiet, urban forest is now seeing the effects of climate change. Ash and oak trees of different sizes and ages are falling, and the situation might be beyond remedy.

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The falling trees have become a safety concern. People from the homes neighboring the meadows walk through the trails and children play and explore the woods during summer camps, said Wells, the executive director for Backyard Basecamp.

On an unusually warm spring day in April, retired ecologist Charlie Davis walked through the meadows. Before reaching the beginning of the woods, Davis passed by the community garden, which will soon sprout vegetables and herbs. He walked by the henhouse, which the children adore, and a fenced area for the goats the organization found on someone’s porch.

The first thing he saw is a large oak tree, likely one of the oldest in the urban forest, before getting on the trail. He names the flowers, white clovers, weeds, purple deadnettle and grasses he sees. He tries to guess the origin of a bone left by a fox burrow and picks up a leaf from the magnolia family, his fingers filled with dirt.

“To me, it looks like a cat face,” Davis, who has been involved with Natural History Society of Maryland since 1986, said. “And that’s the whiskers.”

He sees a fallen tree, and his voice takes a heavier tone. He peels the bark carefully, noting the patches, like black charred charcoal, that cover the oak tree — likely traces of a deadly fungus called hypoxylon canker, he later concludes.

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A nearby elm tree has been taken over by a bacterial infection named slime flux. And ash trees, which neighborhood residents said had been mysteriously falling for months, indeed had marks of the emerald ash borer, a beetle that feeds on and destroys ash trees.

“We’re hitting peak die out of our ash trees,” Dan Coy, chief of forestry for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, said. “Meaning, like our large mature ash trees that are untreated are going to be dying pretty rapidly.”

The city has treated over 400 trees throughout its streets and public parks in the past few years, Coy said. But the city doesn’t have a plan for the emerald ash borer infestation in the long run. In an industrial city like Baltimore, urban forests play an essential role in community health and remediating climate change, cooling neighborhoods and acting as a educational and recreational space, said Katherine Lautar, executive director for Baltimore Green Space.

People have stopped using the trails as often since many of the trees have randomly started falling down. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Nationwide, federal and state funding for forest management is scarce, Lautar said.

The COVID-19 pandemic led many municipalities to realize how essential outdoor spaces are for community health, she said, but there’s still need for a further “paradigm shift” to lead to meaningful policy and budget decisions. In Baltimore, where the park system has historically been underfunded, it seems to Lautar that city officials had limited ability in consistently responding and addressing forest management issues.

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Wells says the city does not allow them to treat the causes of falling trees in Frankford. She describes the meadow as a sick forest and says that her organization, which aims to reconnect Black people to land and nature in Baltimore, is doing what it can to save the greenery, including slowly remediating the soil.

Wells and other program managers transformed the once-vacant lot into a field with a wildflower meadow filled with native flowers that allow foraging by local pollinators; a community garden with herbs, vegetables and fruits; and fenced spaces for goats and chickens. They are replanting an orchard, hoping to add native species to the field. Most of the current trees are not native, she said, growing from seeds that were likely blown by the wind or brought by birds.

They are figuring out what to do with the trails, too, leaving the vines alone and painting the bark of trees in orange to alert people in the woods about the vines.

As Davis, the retired ecologist, walks out of the woods, he says there are answers laid all around us in nature — messages about community, life and death.

“People think nature is separate from themselves. And we are so intimately tied in with nature,” Davis said. “Until we understand that and embody that, we will continue to have severe impacts to the earth.”

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Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

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