Loving and Losing Winnipeg’s Urban Forest
In this excerpt from her book Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019), local author Ariel Gordon writes about the Winnipeg trees she loves and her vision for the urban forest of the next generation. These selections are from Chapter 2: This is Winnipeg’s Urban Forest.
It’s early November 2016. It’s been unseasonably warm, but there are skins of ice on the puddles this morning, the kind that are wonderful to stomp. I’ve just dropped our daughter, Anna, at a friend’s house; Mike and I have a few hours to ourselves, so we’re going for a walk. We’re doing the Wolseley/Wellington loop, which means walking under a domed canopy of trees, from one neighbourhood to the next and back.
As we set out, we notice arborists on the next block pruning the elms, one with a hand tool – a long stick with a blade at the top – and another farther on with a bucket, trimming the uppermost branches. I approach the one with the tool, who has just trimmed a lower branch about the diameter of the thin end of a baseball bat. He looks like he doesn’t really want to talk to me – the city apparently gets somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6,000–10,000 customer service requests per year and I’m sure this arborist has had his share of conversations with frustrated homeowners, wondering when their tree is going to be taken care of – but soon warms up.
I point back the way I’ve come. “I’ve got the best-looking elm on the street,” I say. “Are you heading to my block next?”
He shakes his head, saying that Wolseley Avenue is the boundary for his crew, and that once they finish on Lenore they’re heading to the same block of Evanson. He pauses, adjusts his hard hat and says, “The biggest, most beautiful elm in all of Canada is at the entrance to Palmerston.”
“Whereabouts on Palmerston?” I say, looking down the street toward Mike.
“You can’t miss it,” the arborist says, smiling as he returns to his work.
He’s right. The tree is easily twice as big as my elm, with four main branches and a thick trunk. I’ve seen it before but now, looking at it, it’s glorious, even if it’s stuck on the corner between two streets. I try to imagine its root system, which would easily cross both streets given the size of its crown. There’s a mansion-y house adjacent. I want to go knock on the door and ask earnest questions about the tree, but I don’t. I want to measure it with my arms, the way children do, but I don’t. A few blocks later, we find fresh orange mushrooms growing out of a boulevard tree stump. It’s not a fresh stump either, which means that the city hasn’t been able to replace as many trees as it’s removed, at least this year. I’m glad to see the mushrooms because they’re intricately colourful, especially now that all the leaves have fallen, but I’m still ambivalent about the stump. About the hole in the canopy it represents.
This is how I mourn Winnipeg’s urban forest.
If I could choose my trees, I think I’d claim a couple of apple trees, one that produced juicy yellow-pink apples in the summer and one that fruited in early fall. The apples crisp and deep red.
I’d pick a pear tree that produced incandescent yellow pears and also the microclimate that kept it happy.
I’d maybe even claim a sour cherry; I wouldn’t even mind the wasps it attracted. I’d definitely want a wild plum and a hazelnut. That’s six of nine and a half. Trees for food and beauty. Trees that aren’t especially long-lived but that would keep me in jam and pie over the winter, fill my fruit bowl in the fall and scent my yard in the spring.
I’d probably want the rest in hardwoods. Two bur oaks, which the city says is “the only oak species native to the Canadian prairies.” I think I’d want one that was only a couple of years old, so I could watch it grow over my lifetime, and one at least in middle age, with minimal pruning, whose canopy I could stare up into and dream. I might even try to make acorn flour in mast years, if I could save any acorns from the animals that carry them away in their cheeks and bellies, and the acorn weevils that bore into the ones that are left. And I’d like another elm, to replace the one I’m inevitably going to lose when it succumbs to some combination of disease, injury and old age.
So I can wrap myself in its dappled shade like a shawl.
February 2017. Someone sent me a link to a photo of my block on Lenore in 1913, a year or so after the houses were built but before the boulevard trees were planted or the street paved. There’s junk in the yard of the house that I will eventually inhabit, which seems about right. I share the photo and my friend Kerry Ryan, a poet who lives in the next block, immediately asks if there’s one of her block, too.
A few minutes later, she comments again: “God, I’m just realizing that is what it will look like again when all the elms come down.”
She’s right and she’s wrong.
We won’t have the arcing canopy of elms again once they’re gone, we won’t have the purple leaves of chokecherries or probably even the compound leaves of green ash trees after the emerald ash borer finally arrives in town, but I have hope. I have hope that the urban forest my daughter lives under will be more diverse, that her generation of Winnipeggers will have even more trees per capita than we do, that they’ll love those trees as fiercely as mine does.
This is all of us, living in Winnipeg’s urban forest.