And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Rev. 22:2
A few weeks ago on a CBC Ideas podcast, How Art Shapes History, the moderator asked a panel of artists: What makes a nation? Christi Belcourt, a Michif (Métis) visual artist, pointed out that this land we call Canada is made of many, perhaps thousands of nations; that the surviving indigenous nations alone in this country number more than fifty; the bison, all manner of animals, plants, animate and inanimate beings are themselves nations. When she said “We consider the trees to be nations” something stirred in me.
My father loved forests. If he had had his way, we would likely have grown up in the bush in a lumber camp and not on a farm. As it was, we grew up alongside remnants of boreal forest. And we still have a quarter section in the family that is “virgin” boreal forest. It has never been farmed or clear cut. My father was a logger for a good part of his young life and still dabbled with timber when we needed wood to build houses or barns. Yet he and my mother likely planted more trees than they ever harvested. The fascination with and respect for forest has remained in the family. One of my nephews is named Sawyer in my father’s memory. My younger brother still spends many weekends at the “Stump Ranch,” culling old trees for firewood. My older brother goes on tree planting sprees.
The trees are nations. I think at an unconscious level, we have always known the bigger interdependence we are part of. I notice when things change; I bet you notice things too.
A row of eight mature green ash trees used to live in front of the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Station Number One. I walked by them every day. They were pollarded last year. “Topped” is the word that professional pruners use. Topping is an extreme practice and works well if done right. Locally, I have seen laurel willows pollarded, with mixed results. There were sycamores that I knew in Berkeley (and the ruby-throated hummingbirds that fed on them) that were pollarded. They transformed the space in front of the grand columned university library into a Roman square. But like most pruning, it has to be done at the right time. The contractors who did the topping at the EPS Station Number One, during what was one of our earliest and warmest springs in many years, waved away my concern when I stopped to question them; said, Oh, these are going to look great in a few weeks. You just wait.
I did wait. A few new branches with fresh leaves sprouted out of some of the limbs, but most stood shriven for the rest of the season. Earlier this spring, I noticed that they had been completely removed, their stumps ground, a bit of sawdust on the ground, all that was left. When I phoned the City, I found out the trees had not recovered from the topping. To the credit of EPS and the City, the trees have been replaced and their stewardship taken over by the City’s urban forestry department.
It was a great loss. Those ash trees were likely planted at the same time that the station was built in 1982. That would make them 35 years old. Thirty-five years of rain and drought, thirty-five years of freeze and thaw, thirty-five years of growth towards the sun. Mature ash live an average of 120 years. Some have been known to live 175 years. Elm, green ash, black ash, oak and maple. You can see all of them on streets in our older neighbourhoods. Their nations go back eons; “ancient” doesn’t describe it. Even planted, they’ve managed, I’ve noticed, to create an intricate web of life in their shade. No wonder they can outlive us.
As Canada comes up to marking 150 years as a nation, I want to ask the trees and all the other nations we share this place with, What can you teach us about living together? About justice, about memory, about change? I want to take stock of how we’ve lived with difference and how we might live in new ways with difference going forward. I want to listen.
That is my prayer.