Confining cities: a giant falls

Cedars covered with snow

Snow flowers on cedars.

There is a hole in my garden this morning. When I look out the window in front of my desk, missing in the scene are the strong arms of the old cottonwood tree. It was felled this past week.

It was not an easy departure for this giant; It took two days and six people to bring it down, but at last it surrendered with a heart-felt thud as the huge trunk hit the ground. You could feel it all through the house which shook with the impact. It was only 43 years old.

Sadly, that’s the way with hybrid cottonweeds. They grow quickly, live vigorously and die early. Out in the open, without the restrictions of city life, native poplar trees can reach 100 years or even more. But in the city, the hybrids face all sorts of impediments to their growth and they become susceptible to disease, soil compaction and limitations on their root growth. In the case of our cottonwood, it had vastly outgrown its living space; it was beginning to drop twigs and branches at an alarming rate and my husband had to make one too many calls to the roto-rooter-type people to clean the sewer lines of its adventitious roots.

We don’t look forward to coping with those live roots over the next summer as they will continue to spring up throughout our lawn, but that too is the nature of this wonderful tree. With a short lifespan, you need additional survival methods and, with a root system that sends up suckers even after the main stem has been removed, chances for rejuvenation are that much greater.

I don’t want to think how the birds will mourn him this summer, though.

Poplar being felled.

The poplar coming down.

Poplar felled.

The poplar comes down with a thud.

Nobody talks to the crossing guard

It’s a beautiful winter so far this year. White flowers of snow have fallen every other day, cleaning up the  landscape and hiding the dirty sand laid down by the City. Of course, we need the sand, especially after the ploughs have polished up the streets and removed the soft snow cushions at the curb edges that helped us to stop at corners.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s probably that I have a bias against high-density cities and I have never been an acolyte to the June Jacobs school of thought. Her anti-utopian vision of bee-hive living is in complete opposition to the Cities Beautiful way to which I am passionately committed. While proponents claim that the “economics” of high density living offer advantages, I have severe doubts about this over the longer term and I worry about the stress such an environment must ultimately take on citizens. I shudder to think what those towers of glass and cement will look like 50 years from now — but anyone who has seen the wasteland of downtown Detroit will have some idea.

And now there is a new threat to the City Beautiful concept: artificial claddings made of a styrofoam-type material that has a lifespan of about 15 years — what happens when this material gives out? The mental images are not pleasant.

As for me, I hug the edge of the city and would move outside if I had the choice, but businesses and personal economics keep me where the streets are paved. If it were up to me, I would spread the city out even further, with lovely parks and treed spaces to separate neighbourhoods — sort of like Charleswood, where I and my neighbours live in harmony with trees and breathing space. In my small subdivison built in the 1970’s, there are seven parks. People walk all the time and they get to know one another. They leave their porch lights on at night, a habit I find wonderfully warming and welcoming.

June Jacobs and compact cities fans claim that high density living promotes a sense of neighbourhood. Hmm. When my youngest grandchild was born in Toronto, I stayed for some weeks with my daughter while she was recovering from the birth. Every day I would walk six-year-old Julia to school and, when we crossed the Danforth, I would always say good morning to the crossing guard. She would say good morning back and one day even spent enough time to tell me that she was originally from Winnipeg.

But one morning, Julia floored me by asking in a six-year-old voice full of censure, “Why do you talk to the crossing guard, Grammy?”

“Shouldn’t I?” I asked, mildly amused.

“No,” she replied, emphatically. “Nobody talks to the crossing guard.”

It made me think about the alienating impact of population density where people seem to need to protect whatever diminishing space they have by not speaking with strangers.

I compare that with going to our local garden centre yesterday to buy a Christmas tree. Children were running about, admiring the plants and soaking up the atmosphere. They talked to strangers and strangers talked to each other. What a lovely freedom from fear.

Note: The above was written December 1, 2013, and just never got published. The hole left by the cottonwood is now filled with perennials on a temporary basis while I decide what new tree to plant. The promised sprouts did spring up and kept Glenn and I pulling them all season long. But the grass, no longer quite so out competed, is making a comeback.

And I still feel the same way about density in cities.



Shinrin-yoku and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Even in November, the trees practice their healing powers.

Even in November, the trees practice their healing powers.

A skiff of snow fell this morning, the flakes as fine as icing sugar. They sifted down from the sky, barely discernible in the morning light, not enough, you would think, to paint the landscape. And it wasn’t. But now a rim of white outlines the black pool cover, collecting more  thickly along the corners. This falling released the sun from its prison of heavy cloud and it shines in defiance of the bone chilling cold that has settled on the land.

November: month of scarlet sunrises and lowering skies, of darkening days and deceptive ice on rushing waters in the rivers that run though our town. Everything is brown and black, the evergreens already losing their green and whatever vegetation is left having given up all colours but drab. I look for beauty but my eye is not attuned to these dreary shades.

Today is Remembrance Day, a day of tears. Blood red poppies stain the ground where they have fallen from the breasts of those who pledge to remember. Across town on the banks of the Red River, a glass and stone tower has arisen, pledged to keep alive the atrocities that we have visited upon one another in the past. The Canadian Museum for Human rights will open next September 20.

Aspen forest

An aspen forest.

I have been appealing to those who have the power and influence in Winnipeg to plant a forest of forgiving trees across the way from the Museum. Today there is nothing but an ugly, stone covered parking lot. Most seem to appreciate the plan. They understand how difficult it will be to recall our humanity faced with a prospect of such ugliness after visiting a sordid and sorrow-filled part of our past. The healing aura of trees where the parking lot now stands would provide us with a place to recover from these stark reminders of our baser nature.

A forest has considerable powers of rejuvenation. Being among trees brings out our best, reviving mental energy and the ability to concentrate.  The Japanese call being among trees shinrin-yoku, meaning forest bathing.

In 1982, the director of the Japanese Forestry Agency, Tomohide Akiyama,  coined the phrase to encourage people to take advantage of the therapeutic value of being in the forest. The National Land Afforestation Promotion Organization in Japan backed up this contention by conducting field experiments in 24 forests across the land. Their studies revealed that a walk in the forest reduced blood pressure and the heart rate and improved the immune system. Experiments also found that even viewing a forest scene for 20 minutes reduced the stress hormone, cortisol, by 13 per cent and that that shinrin-yoku reduced anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and “emotional confusion”.

Starting in 2004, the Japanese government set aside $4 million for shinrin-yoku research which even involved rangers measuring the blood pressure of visitors as part of the studies.

It has since been suggested that phytoncides (meaning “exterminated by the plant”), chemicals emitted by the trees and including natural preservatives, antimicrobial compounds, fungicides, and volatile organic compounds of the kind found in aromatherapy are the responsible agents.

Not that it matters. What is important is that being in a forest is restorative, even on dull November days when the sun graces us for very brief periods and the sky threatens darker things. Just  thinking about trees and writing about them is enough to lighten the mood.

It worked for me. I hope it worked for you.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights Winnipeg

The museum as it appeared from the river in the summer of 2012. The other side is an ugly parking lot.

Secret talents of leaves

Tattered leaves blow in the wind: red, orange, yellow, a few still green, torn prematurely from their lofty perches.

What secrets talents leaves possess.

It is autumn now. Even though summer has hung on stubbornly the last few weeks, it is time to give up, to let the flowers die a natural, withered death without water, allow the litter of leaves to lie in mounds until the branches are bare and cleanup is a possibility.

Still, some plants struggle to put out new life; the moonflower, which waited so long to bloom, has more flower buds now than at any time over the past  season. We have already had frost and her leaves have been damaged where the ice crystals touched them. I haven`t watered, so many other leaves are yellow or even drying out and turning brown. The patio raspberry, too, has been putting out bundles of

Amur Maple by Dorothy Dobbie

The Amur maple blazes, her colours released by the fallen poplar leaves.

ruby fruit.

It is a golden and crimson world. The Amur maple is suddenly brightly orange because the sunlight has been able to reach her as the poplar leaves fall.  No sun, no colour. The long, warm days of the past month have drawn out the pigments of all the trees in a parade of burning brilliance.

In the back yard, the apple tree is still mostly green, a contrast to its neighbour, the Amur chokecherry with its few limp, lemon and lime leaves reluctantly clinging to the sparsely decorated branches.

In my office as I write, the sun reflects its golden blaze off the orange Amur  leaves, lending a cinnamon glow to the room, an image impossible to capture on a mere digital camera  lens, but one that is burnt on to my retina.

Thinking of fall colour reminds me of my guest on CJOB this morning. Yusuf Chaman works with Ten Thousand Villages. His family started the artisan rug making organization called Bunyaad (meaning foundation) to provide fair trade employment for Pakistani villagers. He told me that certain gifted rug makers in Pakistan remember how to weave a rug using more than mere cognitive abilities and a pattern similar to what i used by knitters. The learning starts young and is developed through practice fed by desire-to-do. Yusuf remembers being rewarded for doing well with his homework by being allowed to tie five knots on his father`s loom.

For some, though, the expertise is nurtured by a deeply embedded mathematical skill that can be ultimately transferred to the fingers of the rug maker, allowing some of them to  automatically assign colours and count threads and knots; the finest rugs can have up to 2,500 in a square inch, taking a person his whole lifetime to complete one 9` by 12` rug. Even in the more common, 500 knots-per-square-inch rug, says Yusuf, the rug maker knows that in his lifetime, he will make no more than about 16 rugs. Perfection is the goal, each attempt better than the last.

To design the rugs, the people draw inspiration from nature, from the colour of leaves in autumn, and freshly sprouting plants in spring; from the blue of the sky and the varying yellows of the sun as it travels through the seasons. And in the villages, they still draw much of their colour from the bounty around them: red from pomegranate skins, yellows and browns from onion skins, walnut shells and marigolds, and blue from the magical indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) of Southeast Asia.

It is a bit of a weedy plant belonging to the pea family, but it has been delivering the dark blue dye for thousands of years. It is not the only plant to contain this magic. There are many others. In Europe and Britain, the colour blue was obtained from the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria), a brassica, which produces umbels of yellow flowers. In North America, the native species is Indigofera caroliniana.

Blue dye from these plants can be obtained by soaking the leaves in water, introducing as much oxygen as possible by beating or paddling the water, then allowing the mixture to settle. The blue dye will fall to the bottom and the water on top can be siphoned off, leaving the sediment, which can be stored as powder or a cake.

To use the dye, an alkali such as sodium hydroxide,  baking soda, lye — even urine — must be introduced to the dye vat to release the colour into water where it can be transferred to natural fibres such as wool, silk or cotton.

This complicated process stirs wonder in my mind as I think of what amazing plant knowledge and powers of perception the people of the past must have possessed to unlock such secrets.

My love affair with winter bones

Hoar frost turns the elms into magical giants.

Hoar frost turns the elms into magical giants.

I know I’ve said it before, but trees mesmerize me in winter.

Etched black and leafless against the winter sky, their stark limbs appear vulnerable yet strong and impervious to the harsh elements. And when they are rimed with frost, they become magical, captivating to us who only walk upon the earth and not within it.

The king of trees here in Winnipeg is the majestic American elm and they once lined the riverbanks for hundreds of miles, drinking up the water that flowed across the prairie. Before European settlement, there was a wide swath river bottom forest on either side of the rivers — not just American elms, but green ash, basswood and Manitoba maple. Closest to the water, in the lowest of the three level river bottom region, peach-leaf willows and poplars stabilized the banks against the rush of floodwaters that roared down the plain from time to time. On the next level, grew the mighty basswood, the elms, the ash and the maples and, at the highest level stood the oaks, disdainfully keeping their feet dry.

The American elms are gigantic, reaching 80 feet into the air. One survivor in St. Boniface, near Fort Gibralter, is believed to be over 260 years old and is 4 metres (13) feet in diameter and 26 metres (85 feet) tall.


A poplar in Winnipeg on Wellington Crecent.

A poplar in Winnipeg on Wellington Crescent.


Largely cleared for farming, the trees of the river bottom forest continue to grace our city and towns through street plantings.

The river elms are celebrated by the 140,000 of their progeny that offer shade to the homes of Winnipeg. There are whole cathedrals of these trees, creating green arches down home-lined streets (“Leave it to Beaver streets,” says Abigail Mickelthwate,” Alexander’s wife. Alexander Mickelthwate is the maestro of our Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Abigail is from Los Angeles where winter is a gentler friend to trees. Abigail and Alexander and their two kids live on one of these elm-lined streets.)

Manitoba maples are considered a nuisance in some places, but their beautiful and generous boughs reach out to their neighbours in an open and friendly way. They seem to me to be synonymous with the character of the people here in friendly Manitoba: they invite small boys (and girls) to climb them because their branches are often very sweeping and the lowest are close to the ground.

The tidy basswood or linden holds itself primly apart, waiting till June to entice everyone with the sweet scent of its flowers. They are prim only in the city, though. See them at Beaudry Park, just west of Headingley on the south side of the Assiniboine river and marvel at their height — they tower 36 metres (120 feet) and have trunks one to 1.2 metres  (3 to 4 feet) in diameter. The city trees are likely to reach only a  height of about 21 metres (70 feet) tall.

The stately bur oak concentrates its sturdy branches on the sky. We see its standing stolid and stark where they have stood for centuries. Most of Winnipeg’s oaks were here when we moved in.

Oten the poplars we see are weaker hybrid strains with shorter life spans, but here and there we encounter sturdy native stock that have grown tall and stout in spaces that lack competition.

And amongst all these stalwarts of the past, there are the later introductions and the lovely evergreens that add colour to our winters.

Trees sleep, yet live through the cold months, their systems slowed to withstand the weather. Before the ground freezes, roots are very busy storing food in the form of carbohydrates for next spring. Expiration almost stops. Water and sap are infused with tree “antifreeze” in branches and twigs. Already, next year’s leafy dresses are well prepared, tightly folded and protected from the frost by an insoluble coat of resin, stored in twig tips, ready to spring forth in all their majesty when the sun’s warmth calls them forth.

The evergreens offer protection from the bitter winds as they add color to the winter landscape.

The evergreens offer protection from the bitter winds as they add color to the winter landscape.

In winter, evergreens are more black or gray than green. As photosynthesis slows, then all but stops, chlorophyll is reduced, the residue held securely within wax-covered leaves. The stomata on the undersides of the needles close up and expiration becomes minimal. Evergreens often carry, patiently and without complaint, a heavy burden of snow throughout the long winter months, even as they provide shelter for shivering birds and protection for our houses against bitter winds. But they themselves can be at risk from dehydration; especially nearing spring when the sun warms and expiration increases under the winds of March. Root systems may have trouble finding enough moisture then to replace that being lost.

Some trees cling to their fruit for most of the winter, lending eye relief in the white months and offering fresh forage for birds and squirrels. Others will retain a leaf or two, refusing to give up the last vestige of summer. Outside my window, the Amur maple has a clutch of maple keys that will surely feed some birds in the weeks to come.

All the trees are beautiful, stripped to the bare essentials, their elegant bones exposed to gladden the eye and heart.

(She is such a tree hugger you say.

I am.)