All I ever wanted was a place to plant trees. Since adolescence, the romanticism of shoving seedlings into the ground, then enjoying their shade 30 years later, always appealed to me. The first time I ever indulged this impulse was in the early 2000s, my brother and I paddling the Teeswater River in southwestern Ontario when we came across the most spectacular weeping willow, an absolute titan rooted on the riverbank.
It clung so firmly to the soil I felt sure it was redirecting the flow of the river, its branches leaning overhead, draping curtains of leaves directly in our path. One branch hung so low its tip was submerged in the water, and from its end sprouted fresh roots, short and spindly, dancing in the current. I was so amazed by this quirk of willows that I broke off the branch and planted it in my parent’s front yard. And there it was, my first tree.
It was sloppy work. I’d balanced the poor creature on its head so that its roots could be underground, its thicker, broken end pointed skyward, its leaves drooping awkwardly, their undersides exposed to the sun. Things like nutrition, moisture and soil pH never occurred to me then in my early teens, but this stubborn willow answered my ignorance with vigour, its stem thickening, its leaves turning, its broken end healing and sending forth fresh leaders. Most people despise willows in Ontario, decrying them as ugly, as unruly, as backyard bullies unwilling to stay in their corners, but these are precisely the reasons I love them. In this age of deforestation, willows are fighters.
My family was so impressed by this dauntless branch (now a sapling) that for the rest of the year, whenever we came across a sturdy willow, on roadsides or fence lines, we’d steal a branch, soak it in water until it yielded roots, then find it a place in our yard, some standing to this day, so large that I can climb them.
The planting of trees is a deeply human obsession. Embedded somewhere in our genes is the intrinsic understanding that to cultivate trees is to wield extraordinary power, and, if done properly, to forge partnerships which can span generations. The mere existence of cultivated fruit trees speaks to relationships stretching back millennia, to our nameless ancestors who first propagated wild apples with all the same aimless zeal I applied to willows.
“Embedded somewhere in our genes is the intrinsic understanding that to cultivate trees is to wield extraordinary power, and, if done properly, to forge partnerships which can span generations.”
Our unconscious obsession with trees is constantly on display, striking me hardest during a trip to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, a landscape naturally sparse in trees. To my amusement, a grove of birch had been planted near the visitor’s centre – an island of leaves in an ocean of grass. They were wretched things, thin and bent by the wind, barely able to stand and entirely unable to reproduce. They were planted years ago by park staff, I was told, because the openness of the prairie had begun to bother them. Trees, for some, are a psychological necessity.
A more comical example is Sable Island National Park, a long and narrow sliver of windswept sand dangling in the Atlantic Ocean east of Nova Scotia, a place, it goes without saying, where trees don’t grow. Throughout the 1900s, and for no particular reason, the Canadian government planted tens of thousands of trees on this tiny and remote island so as to establish a forest, a whim which amounted to nothing. Today, only one of these trees survives, a pine, gnarled and flat. Wherever we go, it seems, we insist that trees come with us.
After the willows, my next planting sojourn began with a store-bought apple, which, to my amazement, contained a single, germinated seed. I plopped this seed in a cup of soil and left it in my bedroom window, where it grew so fervently I was obliged to find it space among the willows. After it had surpassed knee-height, I purchased gala and yellow transparent apple trees to keep it company. Before I knew it, I had built an orchard, adding pears and plums. I just wanted to sit and watch them grow, and to pretend, for a moment, that I was dependent on them to feed myself. No amount of technological wizardry can convert ambient sunlight, carbon dioxide, ammonia and essential fertilizers into edible fruit, yet here were trees doing so single-mindedly, their every evolutionary gift bent towards this lone miracle. We should be more grateful than we are.
I’ll never forget the second chapter of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in which he described the orchards of the Navajo. The Spanish introduced peaches to North America sometime in the 1500s, and the connection forged between this foreign fruit and the native Navajo was so swift and natural that, in the following centuries, peach orchards were established by tribes throughout modern Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, the spread of this fruit even outpacing European encroachment. Peaches became a staple of the Navajo diet, a giver of crucial calories and a source of considerable pride to the generations of people who propagated them, multiplying each orchard from dozens of trees into thousands. I cannot relate the atrocities visited upon the Navajo as well as Brown, but it’s clear the destruction of these orchards by the United States government in 1864 broke the spirits of the Navajo like nothing had before.
“The Navajos could forgive [Kit Carson] for fighting them as a soldier,” wrote Brown, “but the one act they never forgave him for was cutting down their beloved peach trees.”
I am pleased to read that, over a century later, several Navajo communities have rediscovered the strains of peach unique to their ancestors and have begun to replant, another show of extraordinary resilience between people and trees.
Such deep-rooted bonds are not rare in history. My mind goes to the American chestnut, so adored by British loyalists in the late 1700s that, when they abandoned New England by the thousands to settle Eastern Canada during the American Revolution, many hit the road with chestnuts in their pockets, planting them farther north and east than the species typically strayed. At least one of these trees flourished in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, until it was cut down in the 1970s. And long before them, these chestnuts were cherished by the Cherokee, Iroquois and Mohegan, actively cultivating them for nuts and lumber. According to the Canadian Chestnut Council, when Europeans first arrived in southern Ontario they discovered groves of pure American chestnut spanning 250 acres at a time, the work of centuries of Iroquois. Today, these orchards are all gone.
This May marked my 31st birthday. Over a decade has elapsed since I began planting trees, precious few of whom – namely my fighting willows – still stand, my apples, pears and plums mowed down by accident after I moved east. Many people despair upon entering their third decade of life, and I was no exception, not because of my fading beauty or cultural relevance, but because only so many years remained in which to plant another orchard or arboretum or grove, to set something into motion which, with luck, I would live long enough to enjoy, rekindling some fraction of our defunct relationship with trees.
A couple years ago I took ownership of a small plot in western PEI, on which I decided to put down roots once more. Work began in 2019 with rare trees native to PEI – Sugar maple, Red oak, Yellow birch, American elm and White ash, planted in pairs so as to repopulate surrounding woodlands. Then, in 2020 and again in 2021, while writing articles on the American chestnut, I gathered several seedlings from the people and places I visited, each tree a gift, a spare, a chance to participate in a very old partnership. If willows are fighters, then chestnuts are survivors, four of whom now grace my yard.
A yellow birch sapling // Credit: Zack Metcalfe
Then, on the eve of my 31st birthday, I decided to make a final investment, one which would tie me to this burgeoning grove not just emotionally, but nutritionally. So, in the final snowstorm of spring, I dug into the mud and slush of my yard and planted seven more trees – five Black walnuts and two White walnuts.
If I am very lucky, this hybrid grove and orchard will bear fruit when I am in my 40s, and will become formidable when I am in my 50s, discovering its vitality just as mine begins to fade. If I am luckier still, these trees will stay in my family, and be treasured for their history and generosity for a generation or two. We’ve built a society in which this outcome is far from certain, however. If my property sells to someone desirous of a manicured lawn, my trees will fall. If I misjudge or neglect their needs, my trees will wither. And if I had hesitated to purchase property when I did, before a wild spike in the housing market, the privilege of a yard in which to plant would never have come to me, as it may never come to many young Canadians, for whom home ownership is a financial impossibility. These days, the planting of trees is a necessarily optimistic pursuit, but as I peer down at the small leaves of my several dozen saplings, I know there are worse crimes than optimism.
Join us in enjoying Zack Metcalfe’s column, Eastern Perspectives.