The Election and the Ash Borer


We saw the white spray paint Xs months ago, marking the reptilian bark of ash trees across the city. The Xs signified which trees had become infected with the Emerald Ash Borer. The borer is a cancer diagnosis in the form of an insect. With the inexact cancer-treatment techniques of slash, burn, poison, workers removed the trees likely to get sick.

In early October, finally, the trees came down. A city crew, armed with buzzing saws, removed trees for free, but left the stumps for the property owner. A grave marker.

As I sat down to grade papers on the morning of the tree removal, the hum of the saws intensified and I lost concentration. Papers put aside, I watched the lumbermen fell the X-marked fifty-year-old trees up and down the street. One ash tree was felled on our lawn, leaving its unmarked brother alone. I couldn’t stop thinking about them as I went inside; not the trees, exactly, but their markings.

Last summer I took my toddler to one of the playgrounds in our small town and saw not spray paint, but etchings into the playground equipment. In rural Iowa, graffiti is something seen only on train cars rumbling past in a blur at a railroad crossing. But at the playground, in the hull of the plastic boat, I noticed a carved swastika. I didn’t want to stop my toddler from playing captain because of the hate symbol underneath his torso, so we stayed. We stayed at the park and played, and I was grateful that he was too young to ask what it was.

A few days later, we had to step over swastikas on the way to story time. Our library was built before the rise of Nazi Germany. It’s a classic Carnegie library with columns out front to match olden days and a cut-budget to match the modern. In the entrance hallway, the swastika symbol hid among the dun tiles below our feet, one on every seventh or eighth hexagon. The problematic step-stone would be expensive to remove, so instead, a wall plaque attempts to contextualize other historical meanings of the swastika. I guess, once, a swastika meant something else. A good luck sign in lots of cultures, the plaque explains, as if justifying an old tattoo.

Once, as I was helping my son up the steps from the children’s section, two teenagers ducked their heads in the side entrance to look around. They pointed to the swastikas. “They really are there,” the teenage girl said to the boy.

This is a pretty bad date idea, I thought.

I tried to point out the plaque, but they were already gone. Does it matter what words a sign says when a symbol says so much more? A white X. A carved swastika. Things get torn down from less.

Some things in my county have changed over the past nearly hundred years since the finishing of the library, others have not. My county is still farm-splattered, with pockets of small towns like mine. During harvest, combines like wide-shouldered alligators crowd the two-lane highways that once were dirt roads. In the summer, buses of high schoolers detassel corn and compare bee sting battle scars on Instagram. Through it all my county is, by account of the last census, nearly 95 percent Caucasian and has been for a century. Our current congressman, Steve King, marks that as a point of pride. Every two years since I moved to Iowa, his signs have cropped up as regularly as dandelion heads. My first year in the district, I laughed. KING CONGRESS the signs say in all caps. I pictured a giant ape streaking across soybean fields. But he survived every election.

The beginning of this election season was the loudest I can remember. I couldn’t help but clamor outside to watch the destruction, refresh my Twitter feed, and watch the limbs of the country lopped off one by one. I had never caucused in Iowa before—as a longtime independent voter, no party fit me. In January 2016, I felt the need to register an alliance. Clinton seemed safely crowned on the Democratic ticket, I thought—I was wrong—so I traded my No-Party card for a Republican registration. The Never Trump ideology drove me, and I went to the Iowa Caucus with optimism in my heart. I thought Kasich seemed a passable choice, one that might appeal to other independents in the General election and offer substance to the debates. He pushed for mental health care reform, which is something that Iowa desperately needs. The Republican Party Chair announced that night that a few candidates didn’t have surrogates to speak for them, and so I volunteered to speak for Kasich. I thought, if nothing else that my students might appreciate the story the next day. “Look at that,” I imagined myself telling them. “Public speaking can come in handy.”

Even after I changed my registration back to independent, out of disgust, I became a cipher for people’s election insecurities. People I had never talked to in town, but who recognized me from my speech at the caucus, began to discuss the election in terms that made me itchy. I didn’t want to know about their vote just as deeply as I didn’t want to know their sexual histories. These people were casual acquaintances at the gym, parents of my toddler’s friends, and tellers at the local bank. These people were my community and I didn’t want to associate them with a movement I liked as little as their chosen presidential candidate’s campaign.

As the season wore on, there wasn’t obvious election fervor on either side of the ticket. 2016 was a year with few yard signs. Most would-be Trump backers told me they were voting reluctantly for him. I knew my vote was with Clinton and told them so. Nothing I said would change their minds. This is privilege, of course, and it thrives in a vacuum.

The Emerald Ash Borer spread through my state and others because of widespread planting of the same species. The “we won’t get fooled again” parks departments refused to over-plant elms after Dutch Elm Disease, and planted ash instead. Every street in my town has lost a tree or two or three. They were the deaths of something you only noticed because they had cast a shadow on you. They dropped leaves you forgot after a season, something you won’t have to rake again. The stumps served as a reminder, until someone was paid to dig them up, for those who could pay.

Here in the heart of No Coast, we’re used to people associating us with pigs, corn, and Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, which asserts that “we’re so by-God stubborn we can stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye to eye.” Of course Iowa is more than that, but we are that Iowa Stubborn element, too. Our beliefs are rooted deeper than the trees we pull down.

How can one live in a town with swastikas carved on the playground? Easily, at least if you are in the majority. Easily, if you don’t stop to think about it. Easily, if you pretend that Election Day will come and go and things will go back to whatever normal you are used to. Easily, if you don’t turn on the TV and instead look out the window at the wind rustling through the branches of the remaining trees. Easily, if you pretend that someone in town doesn’t have a screwdriver in their shed with paint from playground equipment still marking its edge.

When the votes rolled in on Election Day, Donald Trump took our district handily. Even combining every non-Trump vote versus his total, Trump won the election. For context, according to the official election totals, Obama won our mostly white, mostly blue-collar district in both 2008 and 2012 with just as large, or larger margins. I found myself returning time and again to those election statistics as if they might change on me. The numbers didn’t, but something had changed in my community during the past eight years – something that made my neighbors vote for populism or against a single candidate. Whether the 2016 ballots were cast with joy or reluctance, the end result was the same.

Still, there are silver linings. In the last few months, and without ceremony, the library was remodeled and half the tiled floor replaced. Progress is slow—a few tiles with swastikas remain—and so we rely on the erosion of foot traffic or an elusive public grant to finish the job. As for the trees, the good news is that the Ash Borer can be prevented. There are treatments out there—some more effective and some less. One of the ash trees on our property remains.

For the first time in my adult life, I have contacted every elected official who represents me. The first couple of phone calls were uneasy, but they were just another speaking opportunity, this one private and vital.

For our politics, since the inauguration, a murmur—not yet a tide—of unease has crept into the community. When a few days after the election, a lesbian couple in our community awoke to hate slogans scratched into their car’s paint, their Trump-voting next-door neighbor sponsored its trip to the body shop. Not in our town, came the resounding call. When the local Mexican restaurant closed for A Day Without Immigrants, the feedback on the community Facebook page (a usually raucous place) was overwhelmingly positive.

Even Iowa Stubborn has its limits, and King’s comments about “somebody else’s babies” was the first thing to catch local ire in years. For the first time since I moved to Iowa, I had hope that our congressional representation might change in 2018. Even with Kim Weaver stepping aside from the Democratic ticket, I’m cautiously optimistic that someone from either party could unseat him.

For the first time in my parenthood, I’m becoming conscious of tools I want to provide my son for how to question, how to reason, and how to resist what he thinks is unfair.

No one imagines that their generation will face a democratic test, not until you see the holes and touch them. Democracy is a living thing, just as vulnerable—or as strong—as the people who make it.


Rumpus original art by Nusha Ashjee.

Rachel Mans McKenny is a Midwestern writer. She was a 2006 Presidential Scholar in the Arts, and her work has appeared in The Knee-Jerk Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and US Catholic, as well as other publications. More from this author →