In Lethbridge, Saskatoon, and Medicine Hat I’ve stood below large and old trees looking up in a strange kind of wonder. A dear friend who loves trees has taken me on a tour of each city – a kind of urban exploration I did not even know was possible. He took me to see the majestic heritage trees found in neighbourhoods and parks. Often old, sometimes very rare, these trees tell the story of their city and the neighbours who believed that one day their community would be a home for kids on tire swings, birds, squirrels, and future families resting in their shade.
Preserving heritage trees takes a special kind of attention. These are trees with a notable age, size, horticultural or historical significance. They may be found in back yards or parks or on a busy boulevard where few people might actually know of its value. But heritage trees are priceless to a community, irreplaceable and thoroughly unique. Cities can pave and build, but trees are something that grows over time under the care of those who tend to them, and for the benefit of all.
“On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree.”W.S. Merwin
I stood on a sidewalk in Lethbridge leaning over a fence looking up at a Black Walnut tree. Below it is a little plaque and strewn toys. This tree is in someone’s back yard and was planted 90 years ago when a family from the United States moved to the city. They planted three walnuts and one actually grew. In Alberta, Black Walnut trees are very rare, and strikingly beautiful. The walnuts have a warm earthy-sweet scent I love and to stand beside this tree, grown by some providential accident, stopped me in my tracks. There are about 40 heritage trees in Lethbridge, including one of Alberta’s largest Cottonwood Trees. It is so big that it feels like standing under a giant California Redwood tree, it’s that big. Two of us could not put our arms around the trunk and scientists are still trying to figure out how it got that size. It is old and healthy, and worth preserving.
“There is nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.”Bob Ross
Today urban explorers are going on scavenger hunts to find all the heritage trees in their city. Places like Lethbridge or Seattle have maps you can follow. Calgary has 630,000 trees, with 70 designated as heritage trees that you can find and enjoy. But even if your neighbourhood does not have designated heritage trees, you can decide which ones are your favourite by taking the time to look out, and look up. Are there trees in your community that you enjoy, that you think are special, and that you would miss if they were gone? By noticing trees, it can change the way you walk, explore, and play in your community.
Planting trees and caring for them reveals the hope we have for our community. Some of the trees we plant today will be here long after we are gone. Tree planting is the work of those with a generous vision for a future that we hope others might enjoy. Our delight in planting trees is not for our immediate benefit, but for the benefit of those who come after us, for the beauty of our city, and for the wonder of growing things.
Perhaps it is because of all the uncertainly we face that we can more clearly see the value of planting and nurturing things that matter, whether tree or neighbour.