A Pretty Nice Job for a Tree

September 19th, 2019 by Emma Durand-Wood

September 20, 2019

My tree will die today.

I knew the day was coming but saying the words feels funny, overly dramatic in some sense.

I fell in love with an elm in my neighbourhood two summers ago. It was a tree I passed by on a regular basis, sometimes many times a day. I’d been walking past it for almost ten years; why did I notice it all of a sudden? And after a lifetime of taking trees mostly for granted? Because a row of trees beside it succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease and suddenly you could see the whole tree, from the ground to the tip-top of its canopy, and it was spectacular.

My tree is bigger than most of its neighbours, but is it more beautiful than any other mature elm in the neighbourhood? That’s in the eye of the beholder.

Glenelm is full of massive elms, each faithfully serving its surroundings in its own incredible, taken-for-granted way, but appreciated mostly en masse. There are so many of them that none really stand out as individuals. But this was my favourite.

The longer she stays, the more likely the disease will spread to her neighbours. My tree is going to die today, but it’s for the best.

***

In fall, the colour show is fleeting; between wind and rain it seems the crispy leaves don’t last long on their branches. We don’t have as much raking to do now; there are fewer trees and so fewer leaves on the ground. While raking was once an enormous task, prolonged so as not to deny the kids the pleasure of jumping in the massive piles, it’s more manageable these days. I have a new attitude: we have leaves to rake because we have trees.

In fact, we have many things because we have trees: cankerworms, aphids, the seed pods that you are still finding in your house months later, and elm seedlings that make up 90% of the weeds in your garden. You don’t have to grin, but you do have to bear them. They come with the territory.

In the dead of winter, the bare branches against a clear sky are elegantly gnarled crosshatches. I take endless photos of their intricate designs, and when I envision a gallery wall of seasonal tree prints for my living room, the winter shot is the most striking and interesting.

My tree is on the left. Isn’t she graceful?

Of course, spring brings promise. Before we know who will live, who will die, before wormageddon, the trees mostly all get leaves. One day there’s nothing, and the next there are hints of green. Even though you know the buds are there, one day it will catch you off-guard: coming up your street, you’ll realize the trees are in full leaf, and summer is on its way.

And summer…summer is something else in elmland. When I think of summer in Glenelm, I am picturing a still, warm evening strolling underneath the leafy protection of the giants, the cathedral bells pealing from across the river. All is comfortable, calm, secure. Cozy is not the right word, but something like that. Snug, wrapped up. That’s what it feels like in the elm embrace.

August 2018. I think I can spot some wilting yellow leaves.

Thinking about a hot summer day does not evoke the same feelings of peacefulness. During the hottest days this past summer, when forced out of the shade and into the beating sun where the canopy is punctured, I can actually feel the anxiety rise in me. Imagine living in a place with no shade, knowing the planet is warming uncontrollably. It feels like being bleached. Stepping into the bright light, the kids and I wince, squinting, in unison.

***

I helped get our neighbourhood association up and running a few years ago. We did a community meeting to determine the priorities we should work on, and the trees were a big one. Please, people said, we need to do something about the trees.

We didn’t know what to do. Do we organize a banding program? Some streets were already doing that, but Trees Winnipeg was saying there was a Tanglefoot shortage and cankerworm populations were expected to be low, so that was a dead end. Dozens of trees were coming down every year, and we didn’t know what to do. We shared tips as we came across them, but there was no real plan. Don’t move firewood. The jury’s still out on banding. Water your tree when it’s really hot, that was about all we could say. We felt completely hopeless.

Last fall, a new-to-the-neighbourhood resident got in touch with us. What are we doing about the trees, she wanted to know? Within a week, this dynamo had organized an information night with the city’s head forester, Martha Barwinsky. From that evening, one thing is etched in my memory. In the PowerPoint presentation, a slide was devoted to the first case of EAB in the city, with a photo of the sickly ash and a recap of the 311 call from the adjacent resident. It’s still awful to think about. Like a 911 transcript or a coroner’s report. Patient Zero.

That was the impetus we needed to get going. A small committee of us formed, and we brainstormed, researched, raged and dreamed. The city, we learned, was only paying to replant one of every two losses. And that’s when we figured out what we could do. We couldn’t do much to preserve the trees still standing. But we could reforest the boulevards, and that’s what we are doing.

***

This summer we were out of town when one of my fellow committee members emailed to say the city was doing the DED diagnosis in our neighbourhood. It’s bad, she said, we’re going to lose a lot again. By then we’d gotten our funding in place, and our initial planting sites approved (more than 50!) and we knew we’d still have money to spend; the plan was to use any leftover money to start replanting some of this year’s DED losses.

We were minutes from home, at the end of this road trip, and I told the kids something sad had happened while were away: the sick trees had been marked in our neighbourhood. I was thinking about how it was bittersweet: losing all these giant beauties, these climate change superheroes, these cooling wonders. But at the same time, if they were sick, we wanted them out ASAP. It was awful, but slightly less awful that it might have been if we didn’t have a plan to replant them. That’s what I was thinking when a voice from the backseat said, “Oh no, Mummy, but what if your favourite tree has an orange dot too?”

My heart sank. The possibility hadn’t even crossed my mind. But maybe it should have. I’d been obsessively scrutinizing my tree’s canopy, willing it to stay healthy, strong, lush, my eyes narrowing in on any trace of yellow or brown amidst the green. I’d seen a few tiny spots that looked suspect, but I wasn’t convinced that’s what I was seeing. Wishful thinking told me it was nothing.

It was not nothing.

It’s amazing how quickly a tree can succumb.

Middle of August 2019

For posterity: Tree data

tree_id: 71920
botanical: Ulmus americana
common: American Elm
dbh: 120
x: 635078.067856924
y: 5530997.62347706
ward: Elmwood – East Kildonan
nbhd: GLENELM
park: Not In Park
loc_class: Boulevard
prop_type: Public
street: Cobourg Av
st_from: Henderson Hw
st_to: Beatrice St
ded_tag_no: 19-0979

***

The sounds of chainsaws and smell of sawdust had been steady for a while. The crews were getting closer to my tree, I could tell. Every time I passed it, I would take a photo, fearing it might be the last time I’d see it.

Last night the “tree ladies” met and we compared notes on the removals happening on our streets. I told them others nearby had been removed that day, but mine was still standing. Maybe, I suggested, they are saving the best for last. We admitted we’ve been giving the tree lots of hugs and affectionate pats in its last days.

I headed out with my daughter to my sister-in-law’s for coffee this morning. Up ahead I could see a group of workers standing under my tree, deliberating. I picked up the pace so I could talk to them. There were a lot of parked cars beneath it, and they were debating whether to go ahead with it. Maybe today, maybe not, they said.

I took a few photos: my tree on its last day of life.

As I approached the corner a few hours later, I held my breath. Would my tree be in pieces? I could hear chainsaws but they didn’t sound like they were coming from that direction. And no, my tree was still there, unassuming, undisturbed. I continued home, a tightness in my chest. An uneasiness stayed with me all afternoon.

Sooner or later, the tree will come down, limb by limb. Until it is gone.

********

My tree lived to see another dawn. When we woke on Friday, the treetops were tipped with a foreboding golden glow; the air felt strangely thick and mysterious. A storm was brewing.

Within an hour, a massive downpour had begun and the sky was so dark that the streetlights came back on. Other parts of the city were flooded in short order; footage of inundated buses went viral and made headlines, prompting check-in texts from weather-watching mothers many provinces away. It poured here in Glenelm too, but our streets were merely soggy. What made the difference? Was it our indefatigable canopy, waning, but keeping calm and carrying on?

Down the street, my tree stood steadfast in the torrential rain, safe another day. No one would be doing any work in these conditions.

And then it was Saturday. Chainsaws stilled, the neighbourhood filled with the sounds of weekend renovation projects, kids playing, woodpeckers pecking and lawns being shorn maybe one last time.

I passed my tree several times in the back-and-forth rhythm of the weekend. There she was, stalwart in service, oblivious to her fate. Or was she turning inward already, preparing herself? Resigning herself.

Monday came and I forgot that treework would be starting again. When I opened the door and heard chainsaws I panicked, then paused, listening. No, they were working the next street over.

The sharks were circling.

*******
September 24, 2019

Today is Tuesday, and this morning I noted the treework signs were up. Surely, today will be the day, I thought, and I walked down the street in light rain, leaned on her a bit, thanked her. Anyone watching would either know what I was doing, or think I was nuts. I took one last, one very last picture.

On the way home I remembered Judith Viorst’s wonderful picture book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. I loved the book as a kid and can barely get through as an adult (perfect poignancy, and all that).

I thought about how when my tree is gone, it won’t really be gone. It will be part of everything else in the world: the air, the water, other trees, me. That’s a pretty nice job for a tree.

The chainsaws rang out most of the day, but at 9:30pm my tree is standing. To use a terrible turn of phrase, the suspense is killing me.

They partially planted our first project tree this morning, outside of Glenelm School. An Ohio Buckeye. Not a lot of leaves on her, but she looks good and strong. At tomorrow’s shovel ceremony we’ll finish the planting and celebrate the project being in the “trees in the ground” phase, at last.

I sat down to work on what I wanted to say, but got distracted with looking at the incredible open data map of all the public trees in Winnipeg. And I found myself focusing on the ash. There are more than a hundred of them on our neighbourhood boulevards. Unlike the elms, they don’t stand a chance.

I’m still procrastinating as I write this. I am suddenly not in the mood for hope. It’s getting late. I’m exhausted; too many nights of staying up late. All day I’ve been telling myself I will get this done early and get a good night’s sleep and be rested for the festivities tomorrow morning.

Just now something occurred to me: what are the odds that my tree comes down tomorrow, the same day as we celebrate the launch of our project? I’ve always been a sucker for full circles. Hope: restored.

***
September 25, 2019

I got my full circle. Chainsaws were the soundtrack to our speeches and thank yous and dedications as we finished planting our first project tree on Wednesday, National Tree Day.

The real, final photo, taken on the way to the shovel ceremony.
I’m not sure why, but this one really gets me.

Thank you to whoever planted her.

Thank you to all those who cared for her.

Thank you to the crew who brought her down. It must be an emotionally draining job to take down trees day after day.

Thank you to the universe for letting me notice her when I did and appreciate the last year she stood. And for giving me a perfect illustration of the circle of life on a day when I really needed it.

Thank you, dear tree. You are nowhere and everywhere now. I will miss you. Your death won’t be in vain.

Postscript

The city has just been battered by a devastating snowstorm, the worst Manitoba Hydro says it has ever dealt with. Our entire neighbourhood is without power for 30 hours (and that’s nothing compared to others who were still waiting for power, more than a week later).

In the wee hours of Friday, unable to sleep, I stare out the window into the unsettlingly bright night, watching the branches pitch and sway, sagging impossibly groundward. The trees still have most of their leaves, so the weight of the wet snowfall is compounded. It doesn’t look good, and in fact it’s much worse than I even imagine.

The city and province have declared states of emergency. I nearly cry when my best friend texts me from Alberta, “Are you surviving the terrible weather? How are the trees on your street? The canopy!”

It could be worse, but the ones on my street don’t look great: limbs shredded, split and dangling, their natural shapes distorted and unrecognizable. Photos from across the city come rolling in over news sites and social media; the devastation makes my heart tense up.

The city estimates 30,000 public trees have been damaged in the storm. By my calculations that’s about a tenth of all park and boulevard trees. On top of the physical damage, they also worry that the spread of Dutch Elm Disease and Emerald Ash Borer could be accelerated if folks store or move branches for firewood.

***
I feel like this will be a defining event for the future of our city’s trees. It could be the catalyst for massive investment and renewal. Or it could be the death knell.

I sat on this post for weeks, postponing publishing it for reasons unknown to me until now. I guess in a way I was afraid that once I published it, it would be real.



2 Responses to “A Pretty Nice Job for a Tree”

  1. Ariel Gordon says:

    Gorgeous and sad. I’m so glad you shared this…

  2. Laurel says:

    This is heartbreaking, Emma!

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