Seeing the trees
through the forest

A life-affirming walk around McGill campus

Kaja Surborg, Sports Editor

Prologue


I’m perched high in the branches of the red cedar across the street from my childhood home. I have a book, Warrior Cats, and a water bottle, and I feel like I could stay here forever. In my head, I’ve already devised a rope harness system so I don’t fall out as I sleep. I can hear the other kids playing down on the street. They’re welcome to join me, but none of them would dare climb this high. But then I hear my father yell my name.

“Get down right now, but very carefully,” he says.

I knew this warning was coming as soon as he realized where I was.

“I’m not saying you have to get out of the tree,” he reasons. “I’m just telling you to come down a little lower.”

There is a particular feeling I get while resting up in a tall tree: It’s this sense of stability, a sense of slowing down in all of the hectic goings-on. When I come down, it isn’t quite the same.

Fall


11 years later, I stand at the foot of McTavish and stare up at Mount Royal. The side of the hill looks like it’s on fire and, for a moment, I think about how the trees there are about to lose their leaves. I know they will return in the spring, as they do every year, but they will be slightly different each time. No season is an exact replica of its previous iteration, after all. The changing of the leaves is my reminder that I will soon have to face my first winter in Eastern Canada since I was two-years-old. I am not alone in being new to this city, and in new places, we build new relationships with our surroundings. Carrie Kirmer, U2 Arts, who plays pickup soccer at the reservoir field on weekends, describes the elm at the intersection of McTavish and Docteur Penfield.

“It’s so beautiful in the fall with all the colours,” Kirmer wrote in a message to The McGill Tribune. “It’s also just so majestic because of the way it towers over campus and it reminds me of going to the field to play soccer.”

The colours of the Mount Royal hillside signal decay and decomposition, but they also promise regrowth. The leaves will fall, and when they fill the Mount Royal soil with nutrients, they feed next year’s leaves, becoming part of carbon and nitrogen cycles that expand far beyond Montreal. Decay is necessary for regrowth, and the past feeds the future.

It is a lesson I take from the trees: All of my past selves feed into who I am today and who I will be tomorrow. I am constantly growing, but each season of my life has contributed to the person I am today.

Trees are capable of regrowing year after year because they shed their leaves without forgetting them. Fall is a season of hope and promise, not loss. There is a walnut tree that sits west of the Redpath Museum and has stood in that spot for 150 years. For 150 years, it has given up its leaves in the Fall, and in the spring, they come back with fruit that will feed the pesky campus squirrels throughout the summer. Redpath Museum Outreach Coordinator Ingrid Birker led me on a tour of the trees around the Y-intersection, explaining their origins and histories to me.

“It’s definitely the oldest black walnut [on the Island of Montreal],” Birker said. “[And] squirrels love those walnuts.”

As we walk across campus, following the path Birker leads tours along, she tells me about the walnut’s fungicidal properties, which were put to use by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

“The Greeks and the Romans were already using the outer husk [of the walnut], scrubbing their earthenware [with it],” Birker told me. “Anything that would have held food or [...] liquids like their oils and wines [were scrubbed with walnut].”

It is a wonderful thought that trees have been helping humans for this long.

Winter


The trees now stand completely bare. I look out of my window one morning before dawn to see the exposed branches of the Eastern cottonwood across the street silhouetted against the dark sky, like something out of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Even in the harsh winter, the trees continue to grow. The growth slows, of course. We see it in the rings. Looking at a tree stump, the rings for each year that it stood and grew are clearly visible. I remember a lesson that is easy to forget at my age—no life is perfectly linear.

The rings themselves show evidence of fast and slow growing seasons, of allowing difficult seasons to be a time of rest. The centre of those rings rarely sits perfectly in the middle, as the tree grew around the obstacles it encountered. These are lessons that children and adults alike can learn.

“This juniper, growing in close proximity [to another tree], was pushing, so that it laid down the growth rings further to the edge,” Birker said, showing me a cross-section of a juniper trunk that she keeps in a kit to teach museum visitors of all ages about trees.

I have mapped out my life through the trees I have encountered along the way, knowing that many of them will remain standing long after me. A saucer magnolia stands near Morrice Hall. This kind of tree is a species that predates humanity, evolving during the Cretaceous age 95 million years ago. Though the specific one we have on campus is obviously not that old, I like to think that it could still weather a lot more winter storms than most of us.

Spring


When Montreal’s ice melts in the spring, I look up at the Mount Royal trees once more. I know that they are already going back to work, even before their leaves have returned. I picture the root systems buried deep in the ground, holding the soil in place as the meltwater runs back down to the city’s sewage systems and the Saint Lawrence River.

“There would have been a stream going through here, and it still runs under Burnside,” Birker said as we stood in the grassy patch below Dawson Hall. “That underground stream eventually diverts into underground sewers, because [it is] outflow from the mountain coming down University Avenue and curving into [campus].”

Spring is a time for growth, to state the obvious. But, it is also a time for reflection, particularly on our impacts on the living things around us. As we have adapted to survive winter in this city, we have made it more difficult for others to do so.

Trees have been little more than commodities to powerful industries for a long time.

Forests have been turned into lumber and factory farms, and I am, again, disappointed (but not surprised) at the hubris of capitalism. For centuries, peaceful coexistence with the trees on this continent was the norm. It is never those doing harm to the trees that pay the price. Though deforestation and clearcutting come to mind when we think of threats to trees, McGill stands at the heart of another problem: The city. McGill’s sugar maples, a native tree of Quebec, have suffered. They are adjusted to our cold winters and hot summers, but not to concrete and salt.

“If you plant a sugar maple just beside the street where, in the winter, you’re going to have to have the de-icer, [the tree won’t be happy],” McGill’s Horticultural Supervisor Eric Champagne, who is responsible for the planting and maintenance of the trees on campus, said in an interview with the Tribune. “We planted a grove of sugar maples, and they’re all dying because they’re too close to where we have to stack snow that is contaminated.”

Summer


While many students flock home over the summer, the maples stand tall and green over the lower field. The trees are now in their fast-growing season. They absorb all the sunlight while they have it, appreciating it more for the long winter without. But trees do not grow and produce just for themselves. Their fruit feeds the city’s animals, and their shade gives me somewhere to avoid studying for my summer class’s final exam.

Some of the trees on campus, like me, are not from here, but have put down firm roots, adapting to these Montreal growing seasons and learning to appreciate and work with them.

“The Kentucky coffee tree [is] mostly found around the Great Lakes,” Champagne said. “But, it’s a tree that loves growing in the city. [It’s] tolerant of the pollution, [and] tolerant of the [road] salt.”

We do not necessarily have to stay in one place to thrive, a lesson I wish I could have learned from the trees when I was 10-years-old and angry because I no longer lived across the street from that old cedar. Champagne takes me on a tour of his small nursery hidden behind the James Administration building. Here, he shows me the saplings that he keeps in pots until they are big enough to avoid getting trampled by students when they stand invisible under piles of snow in the winter. He moves them each year as they grow, giving them the space that they need. Their almost-chameleonic ability to adapt is what has allowed these trees to survive for as long as they have. When we do notice them and their beauty, they provide us with such a sense of joy.

“There’s a ginko tree in front of the law library that I actually vibe so hard with,” Anthony Schokalsky, U2 Arts, wrote in a message to the Tribune. “Something about the size, the shape, the bark, the leaves, the form the branches make [all make me so happy].”

Epilogue


At the beginning of the fall semester, I sit at a picnic table in the grass east of Burnside Hall. The site is boxed in by construction now, but the trees that surround me and shade me from the late summer sun create a buffer that I am grateful for. The world is changing, and our environment is collapsing.

But, the trees continue to give me hope. There is something about a living being that does not know I am there, but that protects me anyway that makes me feel like the world will be okay.

While I sit in a position of privilege that allows me to have this hope, knowing that there is a tree species that has survived 95 million years helps assure me that life will go on.

Despite my preoccupation with certain trees, most days I walk through Montreal fully unaware of the trees that line the streets. As appreciative as I am of the trees here, I consider how most of them will not be added to the running list of life-changing trees that I keep in my head. I frequently think back to those old growth cedars of my childhood on the West Coast, or the palm tree outside the window of my adolescence, silhouetted against a sunset made all the more beautiful by the air pollution. Those trees are firmly lodged in my mind as markers of the places that life has taken me. Life is inherently transient. People and places come and go, but, without human intervention, the trees will continue to stand tall. Birker told me about how she teaches children about their environment and how trees grow.

“What is happening here? What do you think caused that? We use an inquiry based technique [to teach this].” Birker said of teaching children about tree growth. “[They] love this because it’s kind of like detective work.”

Learning about trees is a process that I still take great joy in. I, too, enjoy the detective work. This past June, I sat under the walnut on the west side of the Redpath Museum. While it is no longer socially acceptable for me to perch high in the branches of public trees, sitting underneath it and enjoying the trees’s shade is comforting in a similar way. We have underestimated these gentle giants for decades, seeing them as simple. Yet, through all that we have put the trees through, I know they will still, somehow, outlive us all.