Losing Our Baby Tree
When Max was one year old, I noticed that we were the only house on our treelined street that didn’t have a tree on our front lawn. I decided to call the city and ask if we qualified for a city tree on our lawn and we did! They delivered our tree shortly after and our daughter, Rachel, who was four at the time, named it Baby Tree.
Our former neighbours came by and asked us if we had planted the placenta from Max’s birth under the tree. Yes, this is a thing…I had not heard of it though I had heard of the burial pod that turns your body into a tree and to be quite honest, I loved the idea of it until we lost our baby tree.
From the time we planted our tree, we watched it grow. There was one particular year it grew exponentially and we wondered why this was. There hadn’t been more rain than usual. Later that year we had a flood in our basement and found out that when they tore down the house next to us, they cut the pipe from the city not realizing that it was one pipe that split into two so for months all of our sewage was filling our lawn rather than leaving our property. It was so saturated that it started to come into the house. We didn’t love it but Baby Tree certainly did!
We all loved the tree. We watered it, trimmed it, and enjoyed the shade it provided us. Max grew with the tree and just as the tree began to tower over our house, so too did Max tower over all of us. Just like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, Max loved to play in the trees branches.
He would reach for the lowest branch, try to climb it and hang from the tree. As he grew he would climb up further, do chin ups and just hang there…Always one to love Forrest Gump, I would even say he dangled from the tree.
Then, one day, when I came home from work, I noticed some pink spray paint on the tree. I wasn’t sure what it was for or who had put it there. I thought nothing of it and let it go. But something wasn’t right. It was slow to grow leaves in the spring. I noticed one of the branches almost appeared to be sagging. I asked Max if he had been hanging from the tree again and he said no but it just wasn’t right. We called the arborist and he came by, said that it seemed that something was wrong with the tree but thought we should call the city.
We found out that in fact, our tree was very sick. It had been infested with the Emerald Ash Borer.
“The Emerald Ash Borer attacks both healthy and stressed Ash trees when its larvae tunnel through the tree’s vascular system which delivers water, nutrients and sugars throughout the tree.” (From: http://www.invadingspecies.com/emerald-ash-borer/#)
The city said they would take it down. There was nothing we could do about it. “Once infested, mortality of Ash trees is nearly 100%.” This is an epidemic in the Toronto area and much of southwestern Ontario and the states surrounding the Great Lakes. It is causing considerable damage to the tree canopy in Toronto, a city that has so much canopy that when you look at it from a high rise, there appears to only be trees in much of the city.
We lost two trees in our backyard soon after we moved in due to a terrible thunderstorm. One tree was hit by lightening and compromised the safety of both trees so we had to take them down. Our backyard went from a shady backyard with a swing hanging from the tree to a sunny, hot, no privacy backyard in a matter of days. It was sad to lose the trees, our swing and our shade but for some reason, this tree, our Baby Tree, the one we planted and grew alongside Max, was really hard to lose. By the end, there were only a few leaves hanging on. The leaves had turned a dark red and most of the branches were bare.
The day they cut our Baby Tree down, Rachel went to get one leaf for each of us.
Coming home that day, I stared at the stump, almost willing it to straighten up like the stump in The Giving Tree but it didn’t. It was just there, alone. No branches. No leaves. No shade. No birds. A few days later, the city took the stump too. Now all we have is a pile of dirt. They said they will plant a new one in the spring but I don’t know that I can feel the same about it. Our home doesn’t seem the same without it.
I had one other tree, years ago, that I was certain was my tree. It was at Camp Tamarack where I spent nine summers during my late teens and early twenties. I would sit under that tree and read. The roots cradled me as if they grew around me and supported me. It was perfect.
I have been drawn to forests likely stemming back to my early years visiting Edwards Gardens with my Grandmother. She would take us into the woods on the other side of the river and we would sit in what we called “The Witch House” and she would tell us stories.
Scientific research has shown that walking in forests is good for our heart and soul. “Based on their findings, the scientists suggest that we take in beneficial substances when we breathe in forest air from three major inhaled factors — beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils, and negatively-charged ions.”
I am incredibly grateful to have visited a few forests on my bucket list: Muir Woods several times and the drive through tree in Northern California, Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island and Capilano River Regional Park in Vancouver.
I dream of going to see the Baobab Trees in Madagascar having been obsessed with them since reading Le Petite Prince as a teenager. Also on my list is the largest tree in California, General Sherman in the Sequoia National Park as well as Fishlake National Forest in Utah which appears to be a forest but is in fact one tree, one organism. This forest is made up of thousands of trees “connected underground by a single network of roots, with each trunk genetically identical to the others”.
What is our connection to the trees? I feel a sense of nostalgia, almost like a yearning to be among them.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer shares her views on science and Indigenous Ways of Knowing as she weaves her knowledge from both spaces into stories of her family, her history and the teachings we can all gain from plants.
In the chapter, “Goldenrod and Asters” she shares her story of entering into academia and rejecting her traditional knowledge for that of science. Her question entering into her program was why do Goldenrod and Asters grow together? She spoke about these flowers that she grew up with and the vibrancy and beauty of their colour. Her professor dismissed her question emphatically stating “this was not science”. So just as her grandfather had two generations before her, in Residential School, she was led to “doubt where [she] came from, what [she] knew, and claimed that his was the right way to think. Only he didn’t cut [her] hair off” (p 41). Years later, she was invited to a small gathering of Native Elders and a Navajo woman spoke of both science and her indigenous knowledge and the world she had shut out for so long, came forward and realized that both can exist and in fact, the Indigenous Ways of Knowing are far more sophisticated and holistic.
Wall Kimmerer tells the story of the white man entering into a space with an Indigenous guide who takes the white man through the rainforest and explains the plants, the trees, the animals. The white man commends the Indigenous guide for his depth of the knowledge. Of course the white man writes up what he has taken from the Indigenous guide as his own knowledge. We must ask ourselves who we choose to listen to and whose knowledge is valued.
What if we just listen to the trees? It is one thing to speak for them, and yet a completely different idea to listen, to watch, to learn and to accept the gift of their teachings just as Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the teachings from the strawberries, among other plants. After picking the strawberries she would watch as the plants would send out red runners to make new plants. The plant would seek out good places to take root so that even when the season of berries was over, new plants were growing. She says, “No person taught us this — the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us.” (p 25)
In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben speaks of the relationships that trees have with one another. He writes, “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives...” He has seen how surrounding trees keep other trees alive pumping sugar through the roots of the tree. Mother trees can pump nutrients to their seedlings and can in fact feel the distress of their children.
So then what does it mean when we take our baby trees, pull them from their roots, away from their siblings and parents and grand parents to put them alone, on our front lawns? We want the shade of the tree, the beauty of the tree, the home for birds and squirrels and any number of wild animals but perhaps, the real secret to trees is in the roots.
Wohlleben writes about friendships between trees. He describes how as they grow, trees will not grow branches that block the light from its neighbouring trees which he refers to as friends. “But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of ‘non-friends’. Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.” (p 5) He goes on to say that for planted forests, which are most forests in Europe, do not have the same connection. He writes, “because their roots are irreparably damaged when they are planted, they seem almost incapable of networking with one another. As a rule, trees in planted forests like these behave like loners and suffer from their isolation.”
So I do wonder, if our baby tree was with a friend, would it have been different. In our backyard we have two giant spruce trees in our backyard that have grown what seems like twice their size since we moved in 16 years ago. We have bird feeders on both trees and dreamed of hanging a hammock between them but they weren’t spaced far enough apart.
Then of course, we live minutes away from a beautiful ravine. It is here where you see trees that grow naturally, with their parents and siblings and friends. We go walking in the warmer weather but many in our area do so all year round. It is a beautiful oasis in the heart of the city and as you go down the path there is a sense that you moving into a different world. There are more forests I want to visit but sometimes our local ravine is good enough. Sometimes there are even surprises waiting for us there…