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Beloved ash tree reborn as Little Free Library

Among the reasons Sarah Austin chose to live at the corner of Loomis Street and Olive Road in Homewood: She loves her bungalow, she loves the neighborhood and she loved the seven beautiful ash trees that shaded the property.

Notice the past tense.

Sarah Austin, left, shows Ron Ehlers the door she has crafted
for a children’s book section of the Little Free Library the
two are building in Homewood.
(Eric Crump photos/H-F Chronicle)

All ash trees are gone, victims of the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle whose larvae gobble the inner bark of ash trees, fatally disrupting the trees’ ability to move water and nutrients.

“I spent thousands of dollars taking down the trees I love,” she said Saturday, June 7, while working on a project intended to salvage some good from her loss.

Austin and neighbor Ron Ehlers are building a Little Free Library in the tall stump on the Olive Road side of her yard, the only standing remains of her beloved trees.

Little Free Libraries are small structures that host neighborhood “take a book, return a book” libraries. A movement to promote the building of LFLs began in Wisconsin in 2009 and has spread around the world. The founders’ original goal of 2,150 Little Free Libraries was surpassed in 2012, according to the organization’s website, which notes that an estimated 15,000 now exist.

Ron Ehlers of Homewood cut the notch in Sarah Austin’s
dead ash tree, which will be home to a Little Free Library
in a few weeks.

In recent weeks, Austin has been gathering materials and working to give the structure shape. She enlisted Ehlers to help.

“We negotiate who’s going to do what,” she said, noting that neither have created anything quite like this before, so they are figuring things out as they go.

“She’s put a lot of thought into it,” Ehlers said.

Austin likes the project’s mission, which is to “promote literacy and the love of reading” and to “build a sense of community.” She sees the project as a way to give back to the neighborhood she enjoys.

“This is a neighborhood full of dog walkers, families walking with kids,” and students walking to and from Millenium/James Hart School just down the street, she said.

The tall stump of her last ash tree is within easy reach of those many neighbors walking past.

“This neighborhood has been good to me,” she said. “A Little Free Library is a way to build community, get people to talk to each other.”

Although she initiated the project and it’s in front of her home, she stressed that people who start LFLs consider themselves stewards, not owners. The idea is to help everyone in the neighborhood feel comfortable using the library.

“The trick is to get as many people involved as possible,” she said.

Damage from an emerald ash borer infestation is evident in
this log, the remains of one of Sarah Austin’s ash trees. 

Ehlers noted that another helper so far has been former Homewood resident Billy Newhouse, who loaned him equipment to carve out the cavity in the tree that will hold the books when the library is finished.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his saws,” Ehlers said.

Austin hopes more neighbors will join the effort. And for those who can’t contribute to construction tasks, there is still the important task of populating the new library with books. She plans to have a party to officially launch the library, and everyone who attends will be invited to bring a book to share.

Ideally, people will bring books they love. They are encouraged to write notes in the books or on Post-It notes that tell future readers what the book meant to them.

Her goal is to have the library finished by mid-summer.

“This is my memorial to my trees,” she said.


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