How a Saint John’s willow sparked an exploration of urban forests and personal stories
Carissa Brown and I stand under a tall willow tree overlooking the Rennie River, in the shade of its generous canopy.
“I see something old and respectful in St. John’s,” says Brown.
“This tree has been around for a long time, and much longer than the people walking past.”
Brown is a biogeographer at Memorial University who studies boreal forests; I make documentaries. The willow does a lot more than the two of us.
“He saw things, this willow tree. You can see where it got damaged somehow, and then there was bark and wood that collected in those damaged areas,” Brown said, running his hand over one of the logs.
The willow is huge, “by Newfoundland standards,” she says. It is really impressive. It overlooks the river and the trail, stretching out luxuriously into the sun. It is impossible not to touch the passage. The texture of the bark is irresistible.
A childhood chestnut
It reminds me of another tree.
I grew up in the shade of a large horse chestnut tree in the town of Sisak, Croatia. It grows in the courtyard of a 19th-century two-story brick building built for railway workers. My grandfather was one of them.
This tree was the seat of parliament for the neighborhood’s six-year-old children. We met there, planning our adventures and robberies – mostly plums and cherries from nearby backyards.
On my last trip to the old country, when my daughters were old enough to remember things, one of the people I wanted them to meet was the old horse chestnut. If I’m being honest I wanted the horse chestnut to meet them. I wanted the old tree to know that everything went well and that there are two new saplings in the world.
I really felt like I was introducing my daughters to an old patriarch of the family. I even took a photo of it under the chestnut tree – just like we did photos with grandma and grandpa and great aunts and uncles.
Because we are not alone in the world. Even the trees are not alone.
Especially no old trees like my horse chestnut and the old willow tree on the bank of the Rennie river.
There, says Brown, the willow’s roots expand and interact with fungi, microbes and bacteria in the soil, transferring nutrients and making connections.
“Maybe this tree isn’t directly connected to this maple tree that’s right on the other side of the fence, but they’re both part of this great underground living web,” says Brown.
This is how things work in a forest. Trees connect to each other – and not just trees of the same species. They care for the young, care for the sick and support the elderly.
The problem of urban trees
In a city, things work differently.
The problem with urban trees is that we often plant them so far apart that there is no way for roots and fungal networks to connect the trees, according to Peter Duinker, professor emeritus of environmental studies at Dalhousie University.
Duinker says that although the roots may extend under the pavement and the sidewalk, such a construction compacts the soil below and “it itself becomes like an impermeable pavement”.
Duinker sees many services and benefits for urban forests. It starts with beauty and goes all the way to property values, shade and stormwater regulation.
But the nature of our cities is that they are not only built environments, but also social environments. Of course, geography, soil, and climate matter to urban forests, but so do budgets, resident preferences, and a city’s willingness to embark on a dense urban tree policy. .
Duinker would very much like us to see the towns as a forest with a few buildings and roads conveniently placed inside.
“I would call it social, as long as it’s kind of a cultural thing that we take with us in creating cities,” he said.
26:09The big old willow tree
Take an old town like St. John’s.
This willow we are under is 150 or even 200 years old. It’s hard to say. Brown and I wonder what he would have seen. Lucky for us, each tree keeps a detailed and accurate log of everything it witnesses.
“In years of really good growth, the rings are quite large,” says Brown, because the tree would add a lot of wood under the right conditions. In poor years, the reverse is true.
Tree cells can also accumulate things like lead and other environmental pollutants: think of the Great Fire of 1982.
“We might see a fire scar in some of the rings that were scorched by the fires, but then regenerated,” she says. “And so that’s something that I especially love about trees, thinking of how much they’ve witnessed through time. We use trees to tell us what happened in a place where we weren’t there to see it ourselves or when there is no recording. “
If our short lives could be recorded in rings, what would we read there?
In 1986, my rings would certainly record the Chernobyl disaster. Are we registering major political upheavals? The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Would there have been close circles in the early 90s during the Croatian War of Independence? Large sprawling rings recording my joy of traveling to Canada in the mid-90s for the first time? Or a scar, when I first felt the connection to my childhood and my home?
When I was six, we moved to a new apartment building next to a busy road connecting my hometown with the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. On both sides of the road, a row of straight, tall, majestic black poplars provided shade and protection from the sun and traffic.
I loved these poplars. The point is, I had no idea how much I loved them until one day, in my twenties, when I came back from Canada and they left.
The whole area was paved, and big box stores, gas stations, car dealerships, and parking lots covered this entire expanse of land. The poplars, dozens, were all cut down so that the newly erected billboards were visible from the road. Walking from the train station to my parents’ house was like a punch in the stomach to see them go.
It broke my heart, but it also, in a very real way, broke the connection I felt with a place where I grew up. It wasn’t quite my house anymore.
The old willow tree along the Rennie River, my horse chestnut and lost poplars are not amenities. It is not biomass, nor wood, nor a percentage of the city’s canopy.
The trees and we are linked in a deeper way.
Here in the West, we are reluctant to speak openly about these connections. In other places of the world there are forests and trees that are revered. In Japan, where American artist and writer Patrick Lydon spends much of his time, the concept of kami make this link explicit.
“It is basically the spirit that resides in a part of the natural world or represents a part of the natural world,” Lydon said.
“I think it’s kind of like an acknowledgment that there is something alive in this world that is bigger than us.”
Think about it just a moment.
The Irish alphabet of the early Middle Ages Ogham had 19 characters, each based on a sacred tree. The Japanese developed the concept of shinrin-yoku, or forest bath, and the Germans have a word for this feeling of being alone in the woods: Waldeinsamkeit. (Of course, the Germans would have a word for that.)
I told Patrick about my horse chestnut tree, and he told me about the tree he would climb in his neighborhood in California where he grew up.
“I’m sure every kid that has had a big old tree around them in their childhood, if you think about it, most people have that kind of experience,” he said.
Then he wondered if that feeling had been lost. “Can we rediscover it? I think we can, if we put the effort into it, ”he said.
We still love trees. Indeed, from Vancouver to New Delhi, from Belgrade to Hanoi, citizens throng again and again to protect old trees to be felled.
Trees are still important to us. And they might soon become more important.
“The more trees we have in the city, of the right species and in the right places, the better off we will be in dealing with a warmer urban environment throughout the 21st century,” said Duinker.
“We have to be careful to manage the urban forest so that it is as resilient as possible to climate change.”
I enjoy Duinker’s hands-on approach to urban forests, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a way for us to recapture that childlike awe in front of a big, old tree.
The artist Patrick Lydon wonders it too.
“We have created these social rules that sort of ignore trees, ignore nature, ignore our innate human relationship with the biosphere and all the living things it contains,” he said.
Lydon, through his art and his writing, reconnects his audience to the natural world, one leaf and one tree at a time. And he wants trees to have a say in how we build our cities.
“We would live in a truly beautiful, sacred, slow, calm, peaceful and wise place that would then come back and help us understand how to live more peacefully with compassion for all sentient beings, for our neighbors,” he said.
So here we are under the old willow tree.
I wonder what St. John’s would be like if we listened to its trees.
I am grateful every day for the river and this green oasis of peace almost on my doorstep. And for the old willow who now I hope recognizes me the same way I think that old horse chestnut far from an ocean does.
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