Trees in winter… and in summer, and…

In winter, trees take on urgency in the landscape, looming larger than they ever do in summer. They stand so still and stoic against the bitterest winds, patiently waiting until the sun warms them out of their stupor and allows them to breathe and bend again.

They are not sentient, we are told, and we are lectured against the personification of non-human life forms, but I cannot help feeling a twinge of anxiety when I see a tree in distress.  It’s a physical thing with me. I feel the same way I do when I encounter a person or an animal in pain.

I know I am not alone in this somewhat irrational attachment to trees. There are many people like me who just plain like trees.

I am the immediate past president of Tree Canada, a foundation that was started over two decades ago to plant trees where people live in this vast country, and I know that there are many tree lovers out there. Among them is my tree-loving friend, Bill Vander Zalm, the former premier of British Columbia, who recently quashed the HST in that province. I mention Bill and his recent doings to illustrate how tree fanciers come from every walk of life.

Can you imagine growing up, then, in a cityscape of concrete with no trees? It must be so de-humanizing. Yet for years, it was the fashion to strip schoolyards of their trees and fill in the playgrounds with asphalt. When Tree Canada discussed the schoolyard greening with one reluctant Ontario school trustee, he responded with the excuse that trees were dangerous because, he said, they provided a place for kids to hide!  I have a vision of a kid playing hooky, pasted up against the off-side of a tree, rigid with the fear of being discovered.

It seems that for all those who love trees, there are others who, just as irrationally, hate them. There was the case of the Vancouver miscreant who systematically poisoned a boulevard tree in front of his condo because it obscured his view of the ocean. There was the Winnipeg man who destroyed a boulevard crabapple because it dropped its fruit on his lawn.

These vandalisms happen all the time, sometimes even on private property. Case in point was the elderly Winnipeg woman who, with her much loved husband, had planted a lovely birch some 30 years ago. The tree was at the height of its beauty and maturity when he died and she took her grief to the west coast. She returned some months later to suffer a second bereavement. While she was away, her next door neighbour had called in a tree service which topped the tree to just above eight feet off the ground. Imagine how this woman felt when she returned to find nothing but a tall stump, a remnant of the tree that symbolized her happiness with her just-deceased husband. The neighbour felt no remorse. The tree was dropping leaves on his property.

These stories break my heart, but there are many other stories that do just the opposite. For example, in the playground of a school in a downtrodden part of Winnipeg, there is a tree that was planted in 1881. It was an accidental tree, brought there by a young girl who heard about a tree planting taking place at her school and thought she would help. She found a wild tree and dug it up, arriving at school only to learn that the tree planting was for dignitaries only. An understanding teacher observed her heartbreak and arranged a private ceremony to plant the child’s tree. It still grows there today, 131 years later.

Why do trees matter so much to us? Who knows? But I delight in the artistic way the white pine thrusts its limbs into the air of the Canadian Shield and I mourn the loss of the hundreds of thousands that were stripped away across the land in the building of Canada’s railways, shipping industry and cities. (I know. It’s stupid. They will grow back, given a chance.)

I have to pause in awe as I travel under a cathedral of interlocking American elms that shelter many of the streets of Winnipeg, and I am thankful that we still have these elms unlike Truro, Nova Scotia. There most of their beloved elms fell to the scourge of the Dutch elm beetle. The people of Truro, though, so loved their trees that rather than burn them when they died, they stripped off the bark and carved the likenesses of their pioneers in the standing wood.

I remember my thrill on seeing for the first time, a handkerchief tree in Malaysia and then learning that there is actually one of these growing in Vancouver and several in the Carolinian forests of southern Ontario. It gave me a special sense of connection with a county half way around the world.

Handkerchief tree (c/o Google)

You’re being maudlin, I tell myself when I start to speak of these things, but there’s a part of me that whispers back, “Who cares! I love those trees.”