For Thomas M. Lennon, the Dean of Arts
In The Backwoods of Canada (1836), Catharine Parr Traill expresses her
"disappointment in the forest trees" near Peterborough. "Having 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" (112-13). 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" (153-55).
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 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).
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 sat "while the Greeks were taking measures
to seize the pass at Thermopyle" 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 observes that the "General . . . was killed close
to the road that leads through Queenston Village, and an aged thorn bush1 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": "[t]hen
the fire-flies, twinkling among the recesses of the distant forests, would be the only
objects that exhibited an appearance of life to the eye; while the Niagara river rolled
its sublime tide silently along, and drank, in quiescent luxuriance, the floods of light
that were poured upon its bosom by a glorious moon. On one side, the setting stars were
struggling with the mists that rose from Lake Ontario; and on the other, clouds of spray,
evolved from the mighty cataract, ascended majestically to heaven, -- sometimes shaping
themselves into vast pyramids that resembled snow-capt mountains, and sometimes extending
their volumes into phantom-like forms, which imagination might figure to be the presiding
genii of the water-fall" (76-77). 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 Bakhtin2 -- a
local "chronotope," a setting rich in natural and historical associations that
subsequent writers could employ, modify, and elaborate according to their own
circumstances and purposes.3
In Canada, as, no doubt, elsewhere, historied trees like
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 who wrote the closet drama Tecumseh (1886) 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). The fourth act of
the play 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 artifacts 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
. . . those giant pears
Loom with uplifted and
Like forest trees! A
hundred years ago,
They, like their owner,
had their roots in France --
In fruitful Normandy --
but here refuse,
Unlike, to multiply, as
if their spirits
Grieved in their alien
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 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 which, 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.4
Probably the most celebrated and chronotopic tree in pre- and
post-Confederation Canada was the oak under which the Irish poet Thomas Moore was supposed
to have written "Ballad Stanzas" -- sometimes called the "Woodpecker
poem" -- after arriving from the United States in July, 1804. In ensuing decades,
there seems to have been some doubt about the precise location and species of this tree.
In the early eighteen thirties, the narrator of John Galt's Bogle Corbet (1831) is
on his way by boat from Kingston to Toronto when he is shown a "small tree"
under which Moore was supposed by local "tradition" to have composed his poem
(3: 4). "Objects of this kind give an indescribable charm to the landscape,"
Corbet comments, "and especially in America, where the scenery as yet cannot furnish
many such talismans to command the genii of memory and fancy."
As the century progressed, however, the tradition apparently
attached itself to a large oak on the Niagara peninsula -- a tree whose species and size
were mythopoeically appropriate.5 As well as
being the one British poet of stature to visit Canada in the colonial period, Moore was
renowned for his outspoken hostility to the United States. He thus had a twofold appeal
for the neoloyalist William Kirby, whose obsessive interest in the past issued in numerous
works of imaginative history, most notably an historical poem (The U.E. ) and an
historical romance (The Golden Dog ) in the conservative tradition of Sir Walter
Scott. In his collection of historical essays, Annals of Niagara (1896), Kirby recalls
Moore's disillusionment with American Republicanism and imagines his "great relief
and pleasure" at residing for a time among "Canadian Loyalists" (128). He
then firmly situates the Irish poet in the pastoral landscape and collective memory of the
Niagara area: "[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 Darcy 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 "Canadian Boat Song"
applies almost equally well to his "Oak" as portrayed in Annals of Niagara: it
"has become almost national among us" (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.].6. . . 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 seeks to honour the
symbolic practice of certain native peoples by using a tree as a "metaphor" for
"peace" (427n.).7 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 (which Moore brought with him when he came to
Canada)8 that produced the most famous lines in
It was noon, and on
the flowers that languish'd around
In silence repos'd the voluptuous bee;
Every leaf was at rest,
and I heard not a sound
But the woodpecker tapping the hollow beech-tree.
(Poetical Works 124)
It is a testament to the potency of this stanza that twenty-five years after its first
appearance in Moore's Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems (1806), William Cattermole
quotes a settler in the Guelph area to the effect that the mere sight of a woodpecker
often makes him "remember the song of `The woodpecker tapping the hollow
Since Kidd dedicated The Huron Chief, and Other Poems
to Moore, the likelihood is that "the song of `The woodpecker'" lies in the
background of the opening lines of his title poem, which find the narrator "On
Huron's banks, one summer-day":
wandered undisturbed and free,
Nor heard a
sound, save wood-doves cooing,
that tapped the hollow tree,
Where owlets sat,
their play-mates wooing. . . .
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" (7). 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:
. . .
from the hollow, blasted pine,
heaven's light'ning played along,
wild grapes close their tendrels twine,
the screech-owl's boding song.
When the Huron Chief himself is killed in the final American betrayal that these lines
forebode, his grave is envisaged "By ERIE'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" (58-59). 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" (56n., 58n.), 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 "the song of `The
woodpecker,'" 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
For the grave-tree at
With the quiet sun
In the years when I am
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
wrote: "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 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).10
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:
slim white birches
curved by the
offer a silent rebuke
or seem to
When the sun glints
on their leaves
dark green or light green
they seem to be
When a breeze
makes them rustle
What do they say?
or seem to?
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," birches are exemplars of beauty (66); in Sherman's
"In Memorabilia Mortis" 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 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" (10), Crawford makes the act a metaphor for the process of
creating an agricultural and egalitarian society in North America.11 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 (33). 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 (33-38). 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 (39-40). 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, eradicated, annihilated by any means" (49).
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!"12
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 precedes 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 . . .
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."
In the last few years, there have been several such
indications that historied trees have become once again a focus of 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 human past. "[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:
these words cling to
each fragile blossom fruit bug and worm
the old pear tree
exudes. if you listen closely you'll hear a
creaking branch with
`me' clinging to it without a ping of remorse
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 which 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
when they come to chop
my pear tree down
to build another
swayin' on a high
will you caw me
if you catch a glimpse
of the axe-
man comin' down our
cause i've got a
petition signed by
all the neighbourhood
who haven't had a
chance to skin their knees
let alone laugh and
up inside its thatched
and there's a young
i know who want to
build their first nest
in its forkt-branches
will you be my unpaid
my unimpeachable i?
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,
I gaze for ever on the narrow street;
I hear for ever passing
up and down,
The ceaseless tramp of feet.
I know no brotherhood
with far-lock'd woods,
Where branches bourgeon from a kindred sap;
Where o'er moss'd
roots, in cool, green solitudes,
Small silver brooklets lap.
No em'rald vines creep
wistfully to me,
And lay their tender fingers on my bark;
High may I toss my
boughs, yet never see
Dawn's first most glorious spark.
When to and fro my
branches wave and sway,
Answ'ring the feeble wind that faintly calls,
They kiss no kindred
boughs but touch alway
The stones of climbing walls.
My heart is never
pierc'd with song of bird;
My leaves know nothing of that glad unrest,
Which makes a flutter
in the still woods heard,
When wild birds build a nest.
There never glance the
eyes of violets up,
Blue into the deep splendour of my green:
Nor falls the sunlight
to the primrose cup,
My quivering leaves between.
Not mine, not mine to
turn from soft delight
Of wood-bine breathings, honey sweet, and warm;
With kin embattl'd rear
my glorious height
To greet the coming storm!
Not mine to watch
across the free, broad plains
The whirl of stormy chorts sweeping fast;
The level, silver
lances of great rains,
Blown onward by the blast.
Not mine the clamouring
tempest to defy,
Tossing the proud crest of my dusky leaves:
Defender of small
flowers that trembling lie
Against my barky greaves.
Not mine to watch the
wild swan drift above,
Balanced on wings that could not choose between
The wooing sky, blue as
the eye of love,
And my own tender green.
And yet my branches
spread, a kingly sight,
In the close prison of the drooping air:
When sun-vex'd noons
are at their fiery height,
My shade is broad, and there
Come city toilers, who
their hour of ease
Weave out to precious seconds as they lie
Pillow'd on horny
hands, to hear the breeze
Through my great branches die.
I see no flowers, but
as the children race
With noise and clamour through the dusty street,
I see the bud of many
an angel face --
I hear their merry feet.
No violets look up, but
shy and grave,
The children pause and lift their chrystal eyes
To where my emerald
branches call and wave --
As to the mystic skies.
I am grateful to Susan Bentley, Susan Birkwood, I.S. MacLaren, Michael Peterman and
J.M. Zezulka for discussing and sharing with me ideas that have been important to the
growth of this essay, and to Eleanor Surridge for putting it into print and improving it
in the process. My thanks also to the University of Western Ontario and the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their confidence and support.
Howison is probably alluding to Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country
Churchyard" 115-16: "`Approach and read (for thou can'st read) the lay, /
`Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn'" (138). [back]
"Literally, `time-space.' A unit of analysis for studying texts according to
the ratio and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented. The
distinctiveness of the concept . . . lies in the fact that neither category is privileged;
they are utterly interdependent. The chronotope is an optic for reading texts as x-rays of
the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring"
("Glossary," Bakhtin 425-27). [back]
See Jasen 302-03. Howison was preceded to the site of Brock's death by John Goldie,
who notes in his 1819 Diary of a Journey through Upper Canada that the spot
"is marked by a number of thorn bushes, which form a kind of circle," adding
that "[t]hey were not however planted on that account, but have grown here long
before" (21). In A Subaltern's Furlough (1833), E.T. Coke has "the spot
where [Brock] fell . . . near three poplar trees," and provides a detailed
description of the battle and "miserable-looking" village of Queenston (2:44);
and in his Pictorial Guide to the Falls of Niagara (1842), John W. Orr has Brock
"standing by a cherry tree" when he was killed, and proceeds to give detailed
histories of the Brock monument, Niagara Falls, and various other tourist sights (183-96).
See also Heath 128: "Large [pear] trees are rare. . . . Yet there are some
remarkable instances. . . . A Pear Tree in the little village of Garmouth, N.B., over a
hundred years old, is forty feet high, and forty-two feet in the spread of its branches. .
. . Its huge branches had to be supported by means of planks running along the tops of
eleven immense wooden pillars. In one year it was said to have produced 28,600
From at least the late eighteenth century onwards, "oaks were claimed to be
venerable, patriarchal, stately, guardian and quintessentially English" (Daniels 48).
In The Emigrant's Informant (1834), "A Canadian Settler" writes that
"[t]he visit to [Peterborough] by Captain Basil Hall, in July, 1827, will long be
remembered by the settlers. . . . The noble Oak on the domain of Pat. Walsh, which
arrested the attention and admiration of the Captain, is held in the highest veneration,
and will continue to stand as a memorial" (149). [back]
See Kirby's The United Empire Loyalists. [back]
7 Kidd is quoting Colden by way of Buchanan 346n. See The Huron Chief 74 and
See Moore's Letters 1: 77. [back]
See also Murray 373 for the assertion that Moore wrote "Ballad Stanzas"
under a "hollow beech tree" in the vicinity of Niagara Falls.[back]
See also Bordo on the motif of the solitary tree in paintings by the Group of Seven.
See also Talbot 1: 155-56 on the settlers of Upper Canada: "[i]n the
uninterrupted enjoyment of liberty, and the enlivening anticipation of independence, these
happy lords of the forest spend their lives in toilsome pursuits without a murmur. Every
tree that falls by the force of their axe is, in reality, the removal of another obstacle
to their increasing prosperity; and never fails to occasion a delightful reflection, which
softens toil and sweetens labour." [back]
See also Zeller 126 for Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy's observation while en route to
Toronto in 1842 that the "stumps, logfences, corduroy roads, and framed houses, [put
him] in some danger of acquiring the antipathy to trees which every settler seems to
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