by Peggy Olive
My world included two beautiful trees in our Montreal backyard as I grew up in the 1950s. A stately American elm, shared with our neighbour and several gray squirrels, was so tall that the lowest branches began well above my father’s head. The rough, deep grooves in the bark gripped my tiny wooden toys or jump rope, and the broad trunk concealed me from my older sister in a game of hide-and-go-seek.
An apple tree occupied the centre of the yard, leaving the south side with plenty of sunlight for Dad’s vegetable garden. The apples, a type unknown to my parents, were small, green and tart. At an early age, I was imprinted with their flavour, and I still search for it at fall apple festivals. Our neighbours grew four Macintosh trees, preferred by the squirrels and by my mother who would not protest too much if we pushed through the hedge at dusk to pick a few. But the fruit was of secondary importance because my apple tree was perfect for climbing. Barefoot, I would pull myself up into the tree to survey the yard from the perspective of an adult, blind to the row of Popsicle sticks that marked baby squirrel and sparrow graves beneath the hedge or the ants that swarmed the budding peonies in search of nectar. A thick branch running parallel to the ground was ideal for dangling upside down to study the sky and growing fruits. I felt quite comfortable hanging there by my knees, my fingers growing closer to the grass with time, and I never felt alone in that garden. The comfort drawn from that small bit of nature has accompanied me throughout life.
We lost both trees. My apple tree was damaged during the tail end of a hurricane, rare in those days, but not so much in this era of climate change. Attempts were made to save it by providing supporting wires, but those proved inadequate. A lilac tree was planted, and the heady aroma of its spring blossoms reminded me of my missing friend. Later a spindly crab apple tree tried to take its place but was a poor substitute.
Like thousands of towering elms in Montreal, ours contracted Dutch elm disease in the 1960s and had to be destroyed. I learned to value our elm tree even more as I watched my father try to save it from beetles that carried a fungus bent on blocking the uptake of water. Every evening one summer, he would run the water hose to the corner of the yard and soak the elm roots. In spite of his efforts, it was cut down in fall and the stump remained as a marker. These days, I’m reminded of the elms by the loss of our pine forests in British Columbia as a result of the ravages of another beetle. This beetle didn’t come from Europe but is native to western North America. In the past, cold winters killed the beetles and their larvae and so limited their spread, but global warming, brought about by fossil fuel consumption and deforestation, has allowed the pine beetle to multiply and soar across the Rockies. Now all of the pines in our northern arboreal forests face this risk.
As I grew older, my attention was drawn to the vegetable garden that produced succulent tomatoes, carrots that were best eaten straight from the ground, and peas that never made it to a pot. Squirrels waited eagerly for the harvest too, sampling each red tomato on the vine and driving my father to distraction. As a cheeky teen, I gave him a colourful book on the natural history of squirrels inscribed with “Know thine enemy”. I received a look of disappointment in return.
Years later, when growing my own vegetables and bemoaning the variety of insects that ravaged them, I wondered how my father had managed to create such a productive garden. He told me that soil, like a child, requires years of careful nurture. He showed me how the soil in his vegetable plot, unlike the heavy clay found elsewhere in the yard, was wonderfully friable, crumbling easily into damp sweet-smelling clumps. But there was another, less savoury, reason. Finding his stash of potent insecticides lining the walls of our old playhouse, I realized how ignorant most of us had been about the toxicity of these chemicals, even after the publication of Silent Spring. Fortunately, these days we are more aware of their health effects, and many cities and provinces have banned the use of “cosmetic” pesticides that serve only aesthetic purposes.
Now I live on another island, this one in the Salish Sea rather than the St. Lawrence River, but Google Earth allows me to travel back to my childhood home in Montreal. The house has grown larger, having been expanded both outward and upward by subsequent owners, in keeping with the current illogical trend to build more space for fewer people. The yard, smaller and darker, has no room for trees or a vegetable garden, only hedges to keep the neighbours at bay. I bemoan the fact that children may choose not to play in the yard because technology, yet to be developed in my childhood, occupies much of their attention. The four apple trees on the neighbour’s property were removed to provide space for a swimming pool. At the end of my street, where I had ridden my bicycle over dozens of acres of wild grasslands and trees, the land is now fully covered by single-family dwellings.
Since I was born, Canada’s population has grown from 12 million to 35 million, and the percentage of Canadians living in cities has risen from just over 50% to over 80%. Since cities cannot continue to expand into productive farm land, more people must be relegated to life in high-rises. This will be necessary if we reach a population as high as 56 million by 2050 as estimated by Statistics Canada. Regrettably, urban densification brings with it the concern that we will distance ourselves even further from nature. Without the familiarity with our natural environment that I and many others of my generation enjoyed, there is a risk that we will lose our pride of stewardship and sense of belonging to the small green spaces we are fortunate to inhabit.