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Protesilaus is a figure from Greek mythology.  As one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, he was party to the binding alliance between Greek warrior-kings which pulled them all into the Trojan War when she was stolen by Paris.  Protesilaus was a king in Thessaly (long a rumored haunt of wild magic, and sorcery run amuck).  He brought forty ships full of warriors to the campaign…but there was a problem which nearly foundered the entire Greek effort before it even got started: a dark prophecy stated that the first Greek warrior to leave the boats would also be the first Greek warrior to die in the war.  When the war fleet reached the beaches of Troy, nobody wanted to set foot upon Trojan land and incur the prophesied doom.  So all the fearless warriors set quaking in their boats.

Finally, Protesilaus had enough of this pusillanimous behavior and he leaped to shore (even though he was newly married and had much to live for).  Sure enough, in accordance with binding laws of war narrative, he was killed by the Trojan hero Hector during the first foray of the war—and the prophecy was thus fulfilled (although it should be noted that Protesilaus killed four men before dying at the hands of the greatest Trojan hero—so he went down as a fighter).

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

When his widow Laodamia heard about this, she went mad with grief.  Since the two were newlyweds when the war broke out, their love was in its first flower and burned hot and wild. The Gods admired the bravery of Protesilaus and they took pity on his distraught widow.  For half an hour, the hero was allowed to return from the underworld to the mortal world to give a more thorough farewell to his wife. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Protesilaus’ brief return from death—followed by a permanent return to the land of the dead–unhinged Laodamia completely.  She commissioned a beautiful lifelike sculpture of her dead husband and proceeded to treat it as though it were him.

Her father, baffled as to how to proceed in the face of these terrible happenings, decided to destroy the statue by casting it into a raging fire, but Laodamia could not be parted from her husband a third time and she leapt into the blaze and was burned away.  His traumatized subjects built a lavish tomb for him and nymphs planted elms upon it.  According to the poetry of antiquity, these trees grew to be the tallest in the world, yet when their tops were high enough to come into eyesight of Troy, the leaves died back and withered away (for the bitterness and sorrow of the dead hero remained even when he and his wife were gone).

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

In the business world it is considered terrible to be the first person to do something truly bold and new.  Business leaders pay lip-service to innovators, but, in truth, business schools teach that ideas should be tried out by others first.  Wang got nowhere, while the wily Steve Jobs took the best parts of his ideas and made an empire. There is a race to be second.  The world’s leaders know not to be brave, but to be sly and calculating.  This is prudent counsel (and has been so since before there were stories of the Trojan War), but I wonder if the world might not have more innovation and invention, if the first movers were not punished so brutally.

Treaty of Penn with Indians (Benjamin West, 1772, oil on canvas) shows Penn treating with the Delaware under under the great elm at Shackamaxon

Elm trees (genus Ulmus, family Ulmaceae) are deciduous and semi-deciduous trees which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  They first evolved 40 million years ago in central Asia, and since then they have spread around the entire northern hemisphere, even crossing the equator in the rain forests of Indonesia–and that is just the natural distribution of these trees. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century elm-loving gardeners took the plants elsewhere on the globe, particularly Australia, which is now renowned for its avenues of elms. But the pinnacle of elms was in America: the American elm is a particularly large and beautiful member of the family capable of growing 50 meters (130 feet) high and 40 meters (120 feet) wide in almost any soil.  The American elm’s tapering curve caused avenues of the trees to look like gothic vaults. Many of North America’s streets used to be huge 100 foot tall glowing green cathedrals made of living elm.

Elm-lined streets before and after Dutch Elm disease

The use of the past tense has probably warned you that there is a horror movie twist to this story. Alas, in 1928, a shipment of logs from The Netherlands destined for use as veneer in the Ohio furniture industry arrived in America.  The logs carried elm bark beetles which in turn carried ascomycete microfungi. It was the American beginning of Dutch elm disease, a blight which later wiped out millions of trees. Various different species of bark beetle are capable of transmitting closely related microfungi (namely Ophiostoma ulmi, Ophiostoma himal-ulmi, and the virulent Ophiostoma novo-ulmi).  These fungi seem to be able to hybridize with one another and form new strains…with new strengths.  The fungi apparently hail from China, but their province is unclear—at some point the trail goes cold (although Chinese species of elm seem resistant to the blight). Whatever the case, European and American elm trees were not ready for the spores.  Even with heavy use of pesticide, fungicide, and aggressive quarantines, the great elm populations of Western Europe and North America dwindled to a fraction of what they were in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Life Cycle of Ophiostoma ulmi

Dutch elm disease is its own special horror if you are a lover of trees (which I imagine you are if you are reading this blog), but there is a darker terror lurking behind the blight.  Dutch elm disease is one of the most famous blights of our era in North America so far, but it is by no means the only one.  Merriam Webster defines a blight as “(a) a disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts; or (b) an organism (as an insect or a fungus) that causes blights.” These blights are spreading and multiplying.  There is an oak blight, a bean blight, and a tomato blight. There are invasive tent caterpillars, mites, and galls. Although blights are technically defined as destroyers of plants, there are worrisome parallels in the world of animals. Frogs around the world have been dwindling from an exotic amphibian fungus. Bats in the northeast cannot hibernate thanks to a different fungus and they expire of energy loss.  And the fungi are not the only worrying players.  Everyone has followed the mass die-offs of honeybees from mites and who knows what else. The mixed-up super-fast dynamics of our human world mean that all sorts of critters, weeds, bugs, bacteria, protists, spores, and viruses end up traveling all over the place.  How long till a Dutch elm disease type plague strikes some life form we hold even more dearly?

Before I creep anyone out too much by writing in this vein, it is instructive to look back at the fossil record of elms. This is not the first great die-back for the trees.  According to pollen samples taken from ancient bogs, six thousand years ago, during the mid-Holocene period, all elm trees suddenly died back close to extinction in northwest Europe.  To a lesser extent the same thing happened again 3000 years ago.  It is possible that elm tree already establishing immunities to the current blights.  As I mentioned before, most Asian species are at least somewhat resistant to the fungus, and certain individuals and cultivars of once-common European and American Elms are gradually being discovered.  Our grandchildren might once again live on streets that are green cathedrals…

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