In The Backwoods of Canada (1836), Catharine Parr Traill expresses her "disappointment in the forest trees" near Peterborough. "[H]aving pictured…giants almost primeval with the country itself," she found "no appearance of venerable antiquity in the Canadian woods. There are no ancient spreading oaks that might be called the patriarchs of the forest…. They are uprooted by…storm[s], and sink in their first maturity, to give place to a new generation that is ready to fill their places" (96). These dismayed comments about the absence of old trees in what is now central Ontario resonate with Traill’s view that the young province of Upper Canada—for so, of course, it seemed to most European emigrants—lacked "supernatural" inhabitants and "historical associations" (128). Just as there were no fairies, ghosts, classical deities, and "legendary tales" in Upper Canada, no poetic stories in the books of Upper Canadian history and nature, there were "no ancient spreading oaks" to conjure up fantasies of Druidic rituals or even village smithies. "‘[H]ere all is new—the very soil seems newly formed,’" complains a friend of Traill’s; "‘there is no hoary ancient grandeur in these woods; no recollections of former deeds connected with the country.’"
While both Traill and her friend—perhaps her alter ego—view trees anthropomorphically, crediting them with some of the physical and the psychological characteristics of humans, what they lament in remarking the absence of "ancient" trees and "hoary grandeur" in the Upper Canadian forests is a quality—longevity— that sets trees apart from human beings. "A tree does not have a predetermined life-span like that of mankind," observes Oliver Rackham, who adds that "[a]n age of at least 400 years is quite often reached by oaks" and "[a] few giants go back much further" (24, 27). Precisely because they are transgenerational, long-lived trees such as the oak, the beech, and the yew can provide a living link with the past, particularly when they are associated with specific historical events and personages. In the Preface to his Hamilton; and Other Poems and Lectures (1871), W.A. Stephens records that in the eighteen forties John Strachan had once contemplated writing a poem centred on "an immense elm tree growing on the commons, near Toronto." His intention had been "to personify this tree, and make it describe what it had seen of change during its long lifetime. First, to tell of the Indians—their history, manners and customs; next, the arrival and settlement of the French, and what they accomplished; and lastly, to tell of the conquest of the country by the English— their settlement, enterprise, and progress" (4). Some forty years later, in Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885), Traill mused along similar lines about an elm tree outside the Orphan’s Home in Toronto: "[w]hat tales could that mute witness tell of toil and privation, among the hardy adventurous few that cleared the forest land on which this now solitary giant of the lonely wilderness stands. What strife, political and physical, had it beheld. Beneath its leafy canopy the Red man reared his wigwam,…the early missionary from far off France held up the cross and preached the word…" (183).1
In his Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791), the British landscape aesthetician William Gilpin provides a lengthy "catalogue of celebrated trees"—"trees…as have…history, and anecdote annexed to them"—from the plane tree under which Xerxes reputedly sat "while the Greeks were taking measures to seize the pass at Thermopylae" to the "Cadenham oak" in England’s New Forest, a tree of "no great age" that was renowned for budding "every year in the depth of winter" (1:120-70). Although he refers in passing to the enormous "trees which Captain Cook found in the Western parts of California" (1: 120), Gilpin assumes that ancient trees are more common in "cultivated countries" like England: "[i]n the forests of America, and other scenes, where boundless woods have filled the plains from the beginning of time, and where they grow so close, and cover the ground with so impervious a shade, that even a weed can scarce rise beneath them, the single tree is lost. Unless it stand on the outskirts of the wood, it is circumscribed; and has not room to expand it’s [sic] vast limbs…. When we wish therefore to find the most sublime sylvan character—the oak, the elm, or the ash in perfection, we must not look for it in close, thick woods, but standing single, independent of all connections" (1: 119). It is scarcely surprising that Isaac Weld thought of Gilpin after observing that on the borders of the "open plains" in northern New York trees have "ample room to spread" and, hence, exhibit "all the grandeur and variety which characterizes…English timber, particularly the oak" (2: 313). In Upper Canada, as in northern New York, the ubiquity and denseness of the forests precluded the growth of the sort of trees to which rituals and legends were attached in Britain and Europe. As Gilpin says, "[f]aeries, elves and…[medieval] people, universally chose the most ancient and venerable trees they could find, to gambol under: and the poet, who should describe them dancing under a saplin[g], would show little acquaintance with his subject" (1: 146).
It is consistent with Gilpin’s remarks that one of the first trees in English Canada to acquire historical associations was an old hawthorn, a North American member of a species "used by the ancient Greeks at wedding ceremonies" and "in England…consecrated to the pastoral muse and to all lovers of rural life" (Flagg 145). After commenting on the esteem and affection accorded to Sir Isaac Brock in Upper Canada, John Howison observed in 1821 that the "General…was killed close to the road that leads through Queenston Village, and an aged thorn bush2 now marks the place where he fell, when the fatal ball entered his vitals" (76). "This spot may be called classic ground," Howison continues, "for a view of it must awaken in the minds of all those who duly appreciate the greatness of [Brock’s] character, and are acquainted with the nature of his resources and exertions, feelings as warm and enthusiastic as the contemplation of monuments consecrated by antiquity can ever do" (76). Having thus established the associations and precedents of the "aged thorn bush" near Queenston Heights, Howison proceeds to describe the impressions that he has gleaned when sitting under the tree at night "when every light in the village was extinguished":
This is little less than a comprehensive catalogue of Upper Canadian icons (fire-flies, the forest, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and Falls), and its effect is to make Brock’s "aged thorn bush" the centre of a rich cluster of appealing and affective sights and scenes. Astutely recognizing that the War of 1812 was a crucial "era in the history of Upper Canada," Howison places the hawthorn tree associated with its beloved "Hero" (77, 76) at the physical and emotional heart of Upper Canadian experience. Indeed, he helped to create what might be called—borrowing a term from Mikhail Bakhtin—a local "chronotope,"3 a setting rich in natural and historical associations that subsequent writers could employ, modify, and elaborate according to their own circumstances and purposes.4
In Canada, as, no doubt, elsewhere, historied trees such as Brock’s hawthorn have exercised their appeal primarily on people of a conservative and patriotic disposition. One such was Charles Mair, an associate of the Canada First movement whose closet drama Tecumseh (1886) was written in the aftermath of the Riel Rebellion to "urge by means of literature…a recognition of Canada’s heroic past and of her potentiality for a magnificent future" (Shrive xvii; and see Essay 4: Savages and Relics: the Commemoration of Native Peoples in the Nineteenth Century). The fourth act of the drama finds Captain Robinson standing on "[t]he bank of the Detroit River, near the…mansion" built in 1794 by James Baby, the scion of a "family…renowned for its loyalty to the crown since the conquest" (Mair, Tecumseh 89, 265; Clarke 21). Since the Baby mansion was pillaged by Americans in July 1813, there is some dramatic irony to Robinson’s hope that neither "speculation…nor progress" will sully the "silvan homes" of "old Sandwich" (Windsor) and to his conviction that "in the distant days, / The strong and generous youths of Canada" will make "pilgrimages" to the mansion to "drink…of the past, / And, drinking loyally, enlarge the faith / Which love of country breeds in noble minds" (89-90). In so far as Robinson speaks for the playwright, it is evident that Mair valued the persistence of artefacts from the past into the future not merely for their "beaut[y]" (89), but also for their power to enhance feelings of loyalty and patriotism, to strengthen the bonds between individuals and their country. When imbibed with the proper attitude, Mair’s "drinking" metaphor implies, the precipitates of the past will nurture the soul as well as the body.
The corollary to this is that the body and the soul will cease to grow if deprived of the nurturing spirit of the past. Between his optimistic prognostications about historical continuity and its enhancing effects, Robinson beholds the consequence of being cut off from the past in some historied trees on the Detroit River:
In a note to these lines, Mair writes that by the late nineteenth century, "[t]he remarkable old French pear trees, once plentiful along the Detroit River, are now rapidly decaying. The annual rings of one blown down two years ago [in 1884] were found to number one hundred and seventy, so that it must have been planted by the French colonists who founded the settlement of Detroit under de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1701. They are of immense size, and are prodigious bearers; but, strange to say, cannot be propagated, and before many years will become extinct" (265). That the Baby mansion rather than the "giant pears" provides the focus for Robinson’s soliloquy stems from the fact that, though "remarkable" historically, the trees do not evoke a tradition of loyalty to Canada and Britain but, on the contrary, associate themselves with the French régime and with France itself. Indeed, it is their nostalgia for France that, in Mair’s patriotic mind, lies behind their failure to propagate and their imminent extinction. To be fruitful and multiply, people, like trees, must give their affection to the land in which they find themselves.5
Probably the most celebrated and chronotopic tree in pre- and post-Confederation Canada was the oak under which Thomas Moore was supposed to have written "Ballad Stanzas" (the "Woodpecker poem") after arriving in Upper Canada from the United States in July 1804. As briefly discussed in Essay 2: Tokens of Being There: Land Deeds and Demarkations, the composition of "Ballad Stanzas" was initially associated by local "tradition" with a "small tree" of unspecified species on the north shore of Lake Ontario between Kingston and Toronto (Galt, Bogle Corbet 3: 4) but later attached to a mythopoeically appropriate oak tree6 on the historically resonant road between Niagara and Queenston. "Objects of this kind give an indescribable charm to the landscape," comments the protagonist of John Galt’s Bogle Corbet (1831) after being shown the "small tree" on the north shore of Lake Ontario, "and especially in America, where the scenery as yet cannot furnish many such talismans to command the genii of memory and fancy" (3: 4).7 Not surprisingly, it is in Annals of Niagara (1897) by the pro-British, anti-American, and ultra-conservative William Kirby that the association of Moore with an oak tree near Queenston Heights is most eloquently stated: "[t]here stood in those days and until recent years a majestic spreading oak tree about two miles from the town on the Queenston road…. Moore, with a poet’s eye for rural beauty, loved to sit and muse under this tree, which acquired the name of ‘Moore’s Oak.’ It was here that he wrote the beautiful ballad, which is one of his most innocent and charming productions…. Moore’s visit was long remembered at Niagara. The late Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a year or two before his assassination [in 1868]…, visited Niagara…, and made a pilgrimage to ‘Moore’s Oak’ while he was here" (128-29). Instead of Galt’s "small tree" and local tradition, Kirby has a "majestic spreading oak tree" like those associated with Chaucer and "Hern the hunter" (Gilpin 1: 134-35, 145-47) and a national tradition that encompasses a martyr to Republican barbarity. What Kirby says of Moore’s "A Canadian Boat Song" in Annals of Niagara probably applied almost as well to his "Oak" in the post-Confederation period: it had "become almost national among us [Canadians]" (128).
Nor is "Moore’s Oak" the only "majestic…tree" celebrated in Annals of Niagara. Looking back to the early eighteenth century as did Mair à propos the "old French pear trees," Kirby envisages "[t]he country on the Canadian side" of the Niagara River as "a dense, almost impenetrable, wilderness of forest and swamp…heavily timbered with oak" and other species of trees. Elsewhere in Annals of Niagara, Kirby regards the three principal varieties of oak found in Ontario—"white, black, and red"—as analogous to the three main racial groups in the Province (268), but here he focuses on two individual trees, both with Loyalist associations: "[o]ne giant oak stood until a few years ago on the farm of Mr. Peter Servos, Jr. [the descendant of a U.E.L.]…. Another stood on the summit of the old burying place of Butler’s Rangers, near Niagara town, a grand imposing relic of our primeval woods. This tree was ruthlessly cut down a few years ago for firewood, and its fall smashed a number of the old historical gravestones of the Butlers and others" (35). To Kirby, the felling of the Butler oak was doubly heinous because it not only destroyed a living link with the Loyalist past but in doing so damaged several memorials to individual Loyalists. Kirby was a conservative rather than a conservationist, but his distress at the destruction for firewood of a "grand" and historied tree reveals the affinity between the two philosophies.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, an ecological aspect of old trees provides the basis for a chain of literary influence that runs from Weld’s Travels to Moore’s "Ballad Stanzas" and, thence, to Adam Kidd’s The Huron Chief (1830), a long poem that, as part of its sympathetic treatment of the Native peoples (see Essay 4: Savages and Relics: the Commemoration of Native Peoples in the Nineteenth Century) seeks to honour the symbolic practice of certain Indian cultures by using a tree as a "metaphor" for "peace" (427n.).8 When Weld writes of the woods of northern New York that "the most solemn silence reigned…, except where a woodpecker was heard now and then tapping with its bill against a hollow tree" (3: 320), his observation depends on the fact that trees whose interior has been partly or wholly rotted away provide a habitat or food source for a variety of creatures such as ants, owls, squirrels, and woodpeckers. It was apparently a combination of natural observation and Weld’s Travels that produced the most famous lines in "Ballad Stanzas":
Since Kidd dedicated The Huron Chief, and Other Poems to Moore, the likelihood is this stanza lies in the background of the opening lines of his title poem, which find the narrator "On Huron’s banks, one summer-day":
I wandered undisturbed and free,
The note of foreboding in these lines is soon amplified when, as he passes a "grove of pine," the narrator hears a Huron woman singing a dirge for her lover, a Chief who "Died bravely defending the Indian’s shore" from "the white man" (68, 65). But it is not until the destruction of an Indian village and the surrounding forest by treacherous Americans that the hollow tree fully emerges as a "metaphor" for "peace" betrayed and destroyed:
When the Huron Chief himself is killed in the final American betrayal that these lines forebode, his grave is envisaged "ByERIE’s darkling groves of pine, / Where gently now the wild grape creeps" and "future bards" are enjoined to commemorate the "spot" in "songs of grief" (1651-66). Almost needless to say, Kidd’s literary obscurity has ensured that he was no more successful in inspiring a sequel to The Huron Chief than he was in imbuing the pine and the wild grape with what Traill’s friend calls "recollections of former deeds." If the groves and vines of Ontario sometimes trigger memories of the "unfeeling" and "dishonourable" "conduct of America towards the Indian tribes" (1589n., 1623n.), the credit can rarely be assigned to The Huron Chief. Yet it is not entirely inconceivable that if Kidd had possessed a modicum of Moore’s talent and reputation, these associations would have entered Ontario’s collective memory and, like "Ballad Stanzas" altered peoples’ perceptions of the flora and fauna of the Province. Even a "Kidd’s Pine" might have been possible.
There is one Canadian poet, however, whose name was, and, in some minds, still is, ineluctably associated with a particular species of tree. That poet is, of course, the author of "The Grave-Tree" (1898), the opening stanza of which has been committed to memory by countless Canadians:
Let me have a scarlet maple
Bliss Carman died on June 8, 1929, but his wish was not granted until May 13, 1954, when A.G. Bailey and others planted a scarlet maple beside the poet’s grave in Forest Hill Cemetery outside Fredericton, New Brunswick. Seven years earlier, Bailey had been instrumental in persuading the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to erect a plaque on the campus of the University of New Brunswick commemorating Carman and two other Fredericton poets: Charles G.D. Roberts and Francis Sherman. Himself both a poet and an historian, Bailey is probably best-known for The Conflict of European and Algonkian Cultures, 1504-1700 (1937), a pioneering work in the field of Canadian cultural studies. Of his collection of essays, Culture and Nationality (1972), F.W. Watt has written: "Bailey is a Canadian Nationalist…[who] has chosen to demonstrate his love of country by developing an intimate and profound understanding of Canadian experience from the beginnings to the present" (qtd. in Bailey, "Literary Memories" 23). Clearly, Bailey’s work in commemorating Canada’s early poets is a facet of his cultural nationalism—his proud and scholarly commitment to placing on view his country’s historical and literary heritage. To Peter Bell in Wordsworth’s poem, a "yellow primrose" is just a primrose and "nothing more" (2: 341). To Bailey and others like him who seek to understand and foster the links between Canada’s social and physical landscapes past and present, a scarlet maple will always be more than merely a scarlet maple.
But the kind of thinking that lies behind Carman’s "grave- tree"—both the poem and the memorial (and, indeed, behind Wordsworth’s condemnation of Peter Bell)—did not coincide with the Modernist agenda that dictated the direction of Canadian literature after the nineteen twenties. Guided by the theorists of Anglo-American Modernism, writers such as A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, and Sinclair Ross strove to distance themselves from the past and from nature, and poured scorn on the attempts of Carman and others like him to discern human characteristics, spiritual significance, and historical resonances in natural objects. "The poets of today," wrote Smith in The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943), are "inheritors of what I.A. Richards has called the ‘neutralisation of nature,’…[and] can no longer find [their subject matter] in the beauty of nature—a beauty that seems either deceptive or irrelevant" (On Poetry and Poets 40-41). "To paint the native maple" (F.R. Scott, Collected Poems 248) was sentimental and ludicrous; to depict a jackpine or to describe "Cedar and jagged fir" was more acceptable because less conventionally emotive (Smith, Poems 42, 50).9 In "Birches at Drummond Point," Smith interrogates the possibility that a vernal wood on Lake Memphremagog in southern Quebec has a message for the spectator:
Leaning over the lake
Answer comes there none because, as the twice-repeated "seem" suggests, the notion that natural objects have something to say is merely an attractive delusion. In Carman’s "My Teachers" (1923), birches are exemplars of beauty (Poems 66); in Sherman’s "In Memorabilia Mortis" (1896) they are associated with the immortality of art (88); in "Birches at Drummond Point" they are birches and "nothing more."
Smith’s view of trees as neutral and meaningless must be differentiated not merely from the subjective and aesthetic approaches of Carman, Sherman, and other pre-Modern Canadian writers, but also from the perception of trees to be found in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie (1884) and other poems about the settlement of Canada. When Max Gordon fells his first tree in the second part of Crawford’s poem, he does so as part of a process of destruction and construction in which wood(s) served first as a formidable barrier to settlement and then, in the form of fences and houses, as a major constituent of settlement. By aligning Max’s felling of the tree with Hercules’ slaying of the Nemean Lion and then having him liken its "vast, prone trunk" to a "toppl’d" despot (2: 163, 159), Crawford makes the act a metaphor for the process of creating an agricultural and egalitarian society in North America.10 In thus recognizing the crucial function of wood(s) for settlers, Crawford was anticipated and probably influenced by Alexander McLachlan, whose chapter on "Cutting the First Tree" in The Emigrant (1861) is in turn indebted to Galt’s two pioneer novels, Lawrie Todd (1830) and Bogle Corbet (1831). (As a matter of fact, Galt himself "cut the first tree, where Guelph [Ontario] now stands on the 23rd of April, 1827" [Report of Tenant Farmers 119].) "’Twas a kind of sacrament; / Like to laying the foundation, / Of a city or a nation," says McLachlan’s narrator of the felling of a "sturdy elm" to initiate the settlement described in The Emigrant (4: 33-36, 29). During and after the ritual, McLachlan’s pioneers offer various visions of the human condition, each connected in one way or another with wood: the first, delivered from a "rotten log," is a version of fatalism; the second, expounded from the "stump" of the felled tree, is a hymn to the work ethic; and the third, derived by way of Bogle Corbet from Aesop’s fable of "The Bundle of Sticks," is a utopian vision of what might be achieved in Canada through collective effort (4: 41-224). McLachlan’s recognition of the physical and metaphysical importance of wood is also reflected in the ensuing chapter, where the cadences of Moore’s "Ballad Stanzas" are borrowed to describe the architectural equivalent of a "Bundle of Sticks": a "little log cabin…far in the woods" beside the shores of Lake Ontario (5: 1-36). Far from being neutral objects, the mindfully felled trees of Malcolm’s Katie, The Emigrant, and Galt’s novels are the subject of a complex ceremony of razing and raising that heralds the creation of a new society. It is in their absence that, paradoxically, they most resemble Smith’s silent birches. In Canadian society as in Canadian literature, at Guelph or on Lake Memphremagog, the phoenix of the new has risen from the ashes of the past.
Of course, the felling of trees, even ancient and historied ones, was seldom undertaken by Canadian settlers and their descendants with the sense of ceremony or "sacrament" described by Galt, McLachlan, Crawford, and others. Echoing Weld’s comments on the "unconquerable aversion to trees" among American settlers, Anna Jameson observed in 1838 that "[a] Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated, annihilated by any means" (64). And, perhaps remembering Traill, she adds: "[t]he idea of the useful or ornamental is seldom associated here even with the most magnificent timber trees, such as among the Druids had been consecrated, and among the Greeks would have sheltered oracles and votive temples. The beautiful faith which assigned to every tree of the forest its guardian nymph, to every leafy grove its tutelary divinity, would find no votaries here. Alas! for the Dryads and Hamadryads of Canada!"11 Wilson Flagg could be addressing twentieth-century Canadians as well as nineteenth-century Americans when he writes in The Woods and By-Ways of New England (1872) that an affection for "the historic remnants of a past century" is rare in "the active classes of [North] American society, who are so eager to increase their wealth by new enterprises, that every change is delightful to them if it preceded a commercial venture" (197). After remarking that "[a] wood which we have always frequented may be the only object in our village that wears an ancient look, except the rocks and hills," Flagg writes of seeing "men in raptures over the demolition of some of the most charming scenes of their boyhood, on beholding them laid out into house-lots, and advertised for sale. They are so deeply interested in advancing the price of ‘real estate,’ that they do not think of the regret with which, at some future day, they may witness the desolation that has followed." To this it need only be added that, to exploit the pastoral longings of their clientele, real-estate developers frequently contrive to have their sprawling subdivisions named after the natural features they have replaced: Oakridge Park, Stoneybrook Meadows, Warbler Woods, Deerfield Estates…
An eloquent argument for the aesthetic and moderating value of trees in urban settings is provided by Joseph Howe in an Address "[d]elivered before the Young Men’s Christian Association [in] Ottawa [on] February 27, 1872" (317). Forty years earlier, in Acadia (written in 1832-1835), Howe had championed the co-existence of "Art and Nature" (813) in Nova Scotia, and as a member of the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society he had been instrumental in establishing the Halifax Public Gardens (1866). In his 1872 Address to the Ottawa Y.M.C.A., he relates the current Canadian attitude to trees to that of the Americans and that of the pioneer period:
In almost all our northern cities we are
far behind our Republican neighbours in arbori-culture. For the first
fifty years, in the settlement of a new country, trees are regarded as man’s
natural enemies. They shelter the savage and they cumber the land, and, as
in the "forest primeval" they protect each other, and grow
spindling and tall, they are of little use when the groves are broken, and
are rarely preserved. To cut them down and burn them up seems a labor of
love. The old States and Provinces passed through this iconoclastic period
a century in advance of us. They commenced to replant trees about the time
when we seriously began to cut them down, and, now, nearly all their
cities and towns are planted. "A thing of beauty is a joy
forever," and what more beautiful than a fine shade-tree?… How
prettily are all the towns and villages around Boston shaded. What debts
of gratitude do the people…owe to the liberality and forethought of the
wise old men who embellished their streets, disarmed the winter winds, and…endowed,
with a luxuriance of umbrageous beauty, the retreat of erudition and the
busy marts of trade.12
"Ottawa must be planted" with trees, urges Howe, for "Colonel By, who laid it out, evidently meant that it should be. The streets are straight and wide. There is room enough everywhere for trees, and for an abounding commerce and a busy population…. [W]hen the Dominion Government has enclosed and ornamented the public grounds, as it must do without delay, the city will…begin to wear the aspect which strangers expect to see when they come to visit the Capital of a great Confederacy" (330). To make his point, Howe refers to some trees in "the shire town of the county" (Hants) that he represented in the first dominion parliament: "[a]n old gentleman, three parts of a century ago, planted three or four elms on the front street of Windsor…. They have shaded and embellished [the town] for fifty years, and I never pass under them without blessing the old man’s memory" (329). Trees need not be associated with famous men (or women) to engender the pleasures of memory.
In the fall of 1980, in the area of downtown London, Ontario known as Woodfield, a young mother and artist named Skye McDonald discovered that the Public Utilities Commission was planning to remove an "old maple" from the lot across the street from her house. The owner of the lot had complained that the tree was abutting on his driveway and making it difficult to park his second car. "Spare the Axe! Lady Opposes P.U.C. Tree Attack" read the headline of an article in the November 27, 1980 issue of "London’s Weekly Community Newspaper," The Tribune, which quoted Ms. McDonald as saying "[i]f I don’t fight for them who will save those trees for my children to enjoy?" And fight, she did. On January 22, 1981, The Tribune ran an article entitled "Skye Triumphant: They’re Listening to Her" which reported her success in gaining the ear of the P.U.C. and many Londoners. "[T]he whole issue is bigger than one tree," she had told The Tribune reporter; the P.U.C. is "indiscriminately slaughtering London’s heritage…. Because of the publicity a lot of people who feel the same way about the Forest City have called and offered their support." In the same issue of the newspaper, a London tree surgeon named R.B. Finch expressed sympathy for Ms. McDonald’s campaign, but noted that it is more expensive to maintain old maples than to cut them down. He also "pointed to the widespread vandalism of young saplings planted by the city" as evidence that many "young people have been taught little regard for the beauty and heritage" of London. On January 29, 1981, the headline in The Tribune read "Regina Street Maple Falls." "That tree didn’t have to come down," said Skye McDonald; "[n]ow look at the mess." "True enough," wrote the reporter, "there [is] a gap in the landscape near the corner of Regina and Colborne that look[s] a little like a front tooth missing."
A more recent and better-known campaign to save a maple tree was mounted by residents of the Leslieville area of Toronto in the winter of 1992. Under threat at that time by the plan of "a social housing developer…to build a five-story, 102 unit building" nearby was the silver maple that supposedly inspired "The Maple Leaf Forever" (Reid 1). According to local tradition, one day in the fall of 1867, Alexander Muir (who was then the principal of the Leslieville Public School) was "strolling along the pathway that is now Laing Street" (Reid 6) when "a maple leaf floated down and clung persistently to his sleeve. He tried to brush it off, then jokingly remarked ‘the maple leaf for ever.’ He then wrote the poem which he fitted to his own music" (Colombo, Canadian Quotations 439).13 "‘The leaf that fell on Alexander Muir’s coat…is that same leaf that Canadians wear around the world,’" asserted Don Conley, who lives across the street from the threatened maple and led the campaign to preserve it; "‘[t]he tree remains the last living link with our Confederation as a nation’" (qtd. in Reid 6). Despite doubts about its age (maples normally live for only "‘80 or 90 years’" [Richard Stromberg, qtd. in Reid 6]) and the anecdotal nature of the legend attached to it, the silver maple and adjacent house at 62, Laing Street in Toronto have become a shrine for English-Canadian patriots. Plaques were placed on the site in 1937 and 1958 (the second by the Grand Orange Lodge of British America), and in 1981 both the tree and Maple Cottage were listed as heritage properties because of "‘the long-standing neighbourhood tradition that the tree inspired Muir.’" "‘Several generations know the story,’" continued Richard Stromberg of Toronto’s Historical Preservations Division in January 1992, "but it’s not something we’re ever going to be able to prove by…standard historical methods’"(qtd. in Reid 6).
More amenable to "standard historical methods" is the demise of "The Maple Leaf For Ever" as a national song. Scottish by birth and "[p]roud of his British background, Muir showed an intense loyalty to the flag and to the empire" (J. Paul Green 745) that is abundantly evident in the opening stanza and refrain of his poem:
In days of yore, from Britain’s
Attempts have been made to "tone down" the militarism of its opening lines ("In days of yore the hero, Wolfe, / Britain’s glory did maintain") and to include the fleur-de-lis in its botanical refrain ("With lily, thistle, shamrock, rose, / The Maple leaf forever"), but Muir’s "pro-British poem has never been acceptable to French Canadians" (Colombo, Canadian Quotations 439). With the rise of both Quebec and Canadian nationalism in the ’sixties and the growing recognition at the same time of Canada’s regional and ethnic pluralism,14it became less and less acceptable to an increasing number of Canadians. "Its use," as J. Paul Green observers, "had diminished dramatically long before 1980, when ‘O Canada’ by Calixa Lavallée and Adolphe-Basile Routhier, was approved as the official national anthem" (746).
As the campaigns of Skye McDonald, Don Conley, and others attest, historied trees have once again become a focus of concerned attention in Canada. Perhaps in reaction to the relentless narrowing of consciousness to the present that characterizes the "now" age of the media (McLuhan 335), numbers of Canadians have found in the old trees of their neighbourhoods and yards a means of establishing contact with both the natural world and the communal past. In the foreword to Tranter’s Tree (1987), the Nova-Scotian novelist and short-story writer H.R. Percy records that the inspiration for his fictional exploration of the interaction between memory, imagination, and "the real" came from an actual tree in Granville Ferry in the Annapolis Valley: "[i]t stands in the village where I live, and one morning as I passed under it with my dog on the way to the post office it dropped an acorn at my feet. The message could not have been clearer. I stood for a long time looking down at this green skullcapped pod of possibilities, the earnest of this novel…growing up into my mind from it just as the great oak that overtowered me had exploded from just such another several lifetimes ago" ([ix]). In the mind of the novel’s narrator, Mr. J, Tranter’s "great oak" becomes "[a] miracle of a tree…its growth a thing of Homeric grandeur, its antiquity defying imagination…. Many a time has he...tr[ied] to encompass in his mind the magnificence of the tree’s spread and the full sweep of its history" (20). For the imaginative Mr. J, the tree serves as a conduit to both history and the natural world: "trying for a glimpse" of the "rollicking devil-may-care" Ned Tranter who supposedly planted it "two hundred some-odd years" ago, he playfully envisages him "indulging the impossible dream of a certain Stephanie Tillard as he prods the virgin earth with the point of his dirk and drops in...’the apocryphal acorn’" (12, 20); allowing his "long memory" (1) full scope, Mr. J vividly describes the tree’s growth:
The acorn, in due season...sending up
its puny two-leaved stem to the sun. The stem, escaping the attention of
winter-browsing moose, putting forth its first fragile limbs. And then the
rings within its trunk spreading outward like ripples from a flung pebble’s
fall; but slowly, so slowly that only God had time to wait around and
watch. Until now its noon shadow spans a hundred feet or more, and he can
imagine its roots snaking and spreading out under the earth, under the
road, under the houses, another tree upside down.
This is superb writing, not least because of the subtlety with which it evokes Ygdrasil, the huge tree of Norse Mythology whose roots and branches bind together the lower, middle, and upper worlds.
Much recent Canadian poetry has concerned itself more with texts and theories than with the natural world and the communal past, but there have been exceptions. "[T]hese bent rusted nails embedded in / the pear tree’s trunk: these broken cleats speak / of a processional of school-children / barking their shins while skinning the pear tree / shimmying up into its leafy hideaway," writes Roy Kiyooka in one of his Pear Tree Pomes (1987), and in another: "an appall’d lover bends his / ear to the pear tree’s trunk to hear a lost rhetorick" (7, 29). Although not entirely free of the fashionable concern with the gap between words and things that has eviscerated much Canadian writing in the media age, Kiyooka’s poetic meditation or utanniki (Munton 96-98) on a pear tree "as old as the oldest house on / the block" (7) frequently descends from the depleted skies of language theory to generate sympathetic connections between its pained author, the "old pear tree," and the sympathetic reader:
The use of scare quotes around "me" (and, earlier, "real") in Kiyooka’s opening meditation forebodes further Lindberghian departures, but more promising is the suggestion of words adhering to things and the intimation of communication between fellow human beings. Greatly assisted in these directions by the deliquescent illustrations of David Bolduc, the Pear Tree Pomes sequence approaches Michel Serres’ vision of a "natural contract" embraced by both "the idealists of language and the realists of things themselves," a peaceful reconciliation which includes "long-term memory, millenary traditions, [and] experiences accumulated by cultures that have just died, or that the…powers [of short-term thinking] are killing off" (21, 4). At several points in his poetic meditation, Kiyooka recognizes the longevity that has always made certain trees a living link between the past, the present, and the future. A jauntily apprehensive poem near the end of the meditation makes a fitting envoi for the present essay:
who knows if i’ll be around
P.S.: the primary epigraph to Pear Tree Pomes comes from Gaston Bachelard: "a tree becomes a nest the moment a great dreamer hides in it" (5).
P.P.S.: a poem by another great dreamer, Isabella Valancy Crawford:
The City Tree
I stand within the stony, arid town,
And three counts of arboreal vandalism:
1. From Basil Hall, Travels in North America (1829):
2. From Cornelia Baines, "Requiem for a Venerable Oak," The Globe and Mail, September 17, 1996:
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3. From Miro Certenig, "Revered Haida Tree Destroyed by Vandal," "Experts Hope Grafts Can Perpetuate Tree," "Haida Receive Support from Scientists," and "Islanders Save Symbol of Local Mythology," The Globe and Mail, January 25, 27, and 29 and April 24, 1997.
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And, finally, another hopeful story—perhaps even a parable—from an article by Jane Armstrong in the June 1, 1998 issue of the The Globe and Mail:
The Toronto tree said to have inspired…The
Maple Leaf Forever is sick and dying, so Heritage Toronto and city
staff have stepped in to ensure that the aging silver maple will live on
in spirit at least in its offsring.