The country's tallest eastern hemlock, reaching to the sky from a cove of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, towers 173.1 feet from its 5-foot-thick base to its last pencil-thin sprig.
The tree is 400 years old, armored in rough bark, and dead.
Millions of hemlocks across the Southern Appalachians are dying, victims of an Asian insect that has moved faster than efforts to stop it. The trees' collapse will change these forests, from warbler nesting habits to the temperature of trout streams, unlike anything since the 1930s. That's when a foreign fungus finished off another keystone tree, the chestnut.
Will Blozan and his fellow big-tree lovers call the record hemlock Usis. It's the Cherokee word for antlers and refers to the massive geometry of limbs in the tree's crown.
For nearly three years, Blozan, an arborist from Black Mountain, has led a project to find, document and save the biggest trees infested by the hemlock woolly adelgid. The tiny insect attaches to the base of hemlock needles and sucks the life out of the trees in as little as three years.
Nowhere do hemlocks grow bigger, or fall harder, than in Cataloochee, on the N.C. side of the Smokies park, 30 miles west of Asheville.
"We're finding them right as we lose them," Blozan says. All 15 of the tallest eastern hemlocks are already dead.
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