The Sunday Magazine

Elegy for a tree - Michael's essay

Trees form living canopies over our cities, and we may not notice or appreciate their beauty until they are gone.
Late afternoon sun shines through the trees at Christie Pits park in Toronto. (The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese)

The city hall people came in December and marked the ancient tree with three orange painted X's. Last month they came back, pruned, cut and removed the rotted upper limbs.

They marked off a length of parking spaces beside the tree with traffic cones. People along the street knew what was coming.

Ten days ago, the city hall people came back and took down the old tree. They left a drifting pile of wood chips and sawdust and a huge stump, ugly as a broken tooth.

The stump was about four feet across. The tree itself -- a silver maple -- was enormous, perhaps thirteen feet in circumference, with root networks that must have run hundreds of feet under roadway, sidewalks and front lawns.

I passed by and under its looming branches every day on my way to work. It saw my children grow into maturity.

In the last two or three years, people could tell the tree was doomed.

It had long tendril-like vines growing around it. There were odd holes bored into its sides and mushroom-like growths sprouting from its bark.

We say trees are living things, but they are also dying things.

They have lifespans. They fall ill just as we do. Most of the time they bounce back, just as we do. But they have to die.

Like us.

There are three or four more stumps of old growth trees on the street.

Toronto is not a particularly beautiful city in the way of Vancouver or Halifax. But it does have two special things going for it -- access to a lake and a series of ravines which creates a magnificent urban forest.

It has been estimated that the city has around ten million trees. About six million of them are on private property. 

Even if it is on your property, the tree is not yours. The city takes a dim view of people trimming or cutting trees they feel they own.

In recent times, trees in our neighbourhood have been taking a beating.

In consecutive years, ice storms have ripped through the tree cover on the street with devastating effect.

Then there have been the natural predators. The Asian long-horned beetle in 2003; the European gypsy moth and emerald ash borer in 2007.

Tree killers all.

A couple of decades ago, we used to joke about environmentalists, calling them tree huggers.

I didn't realize it at the time, but they were on to something.

There is something indefinable about our relationship with trees, almost mystical.  I once sat on the ground in a local park and stared at a tree for about fifteen minutes. It was somehow a refreshing experiment.

To Hal Borland, the naturalist journalist and poet, trees are natural teachers. "If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees."

Last month, Oliver Rackham, one of the world's great foresters, died at his home in England. His field of study, was various forms of tree disease which threatened for instance, the great ash trees of England.

Because of diseases and tree pests, he called for a revival of the science of tree pathology, a science I'd never heard of.

Our cities are blessed to contain great urban forests. Whatever or however much money it takes, we have to preserve and protect them.

Sadly, we often never notice the trees until they are gone.   



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