The stories we tell and the trees that help us remember

Humber River trail

Humber River Rec Trail

Back in June, I received a public call from a man named Mark who had a honey locust tree that wasn’t doing too well. He told me that the tree was sick and that each year fewer and fewer leaves were growing back. He said that this tree, which he had planted over 30 years ago, was the last physical reminder he had of a time when his whole family was together. After hearing this, I got pretty emotional and really wanted to help him out. I told him what I thought was causing its poor health, gave him some homework, and thought that I would never hear from him again.

Well, just yesterday, he sent me an email and a picture of the honey locust. He was happy to report that it was doing well and said it now had so many leaves that he couldn’t keep up with the raking.

Mark’s story got me thinking about the special relationship that people have with trees, not trees in general, but with individual trees. Whether it is a tree they climbed as a child, or a tree dedicated to a loved one that had passed on, or just one they passed everyday on their way home, people seem to remember trees and the trees often stay around for long enough to remind us of the stories that we created around them.

Last night, I asked some of the people in my life to share their tree memories with me. So as an ode to National Tree Day, September 24th, 2014, I’m going to share these wonderful stories with you.

The stories were about reaching new heights…

There was an elm tree at the top of the hill on the farm where I grew up. The farm was called Elmcrest. It was the only tree surrounded by farm fields and it was frequently my destination for activities. I would always think, “I’m going to run, bike, ride, ski all the way to the tree at the top of the hill today”. It was big and beautiful…it’s now gone of course, but I still remember it!

-Kelly Withers, Program Manager, Invasive Species Centre


I used to climb a crab apple tree in a park near my house as a child. I was always so proud of myself for getting up onto the branches, even if it was with my Dad’s help. Going back as an adult I realized it was actually a very small tree and not hard to climb at all! Nevertheless, the connection with my Dad and the sense of adventure that I felt remain with me to this day.

-Monica, former Trinity Bellwoods Urban Forestry intern


There is an Eastern White Cedar in my backyard that my siblings and I used to climb when we were young. It must have been about 40 feet tall and had these branches that crossed horizontally and parallel to each other, just like rungs on a ladder. It was by definition, THE perfect climbing tree. I would get home from school and climb and climb until I couldn’t go any further. As far as my 6 year-old self was concerned, I was hanging out in the clouds like Jack in the beanstalk. I could see everything in my neighbourhood, but still felt invisible, invincible even, as long as I didn’t look down. I must have climbed that tree a hundred times. It’s now old, decrepit and definitely too dangerous to mount, but it’s still my favourite tree.

-Jennifer Gagné


…and growing up or feeling young…

As a young girl, I had the privilege of growing up in a neighbourhood full of mature oak trees. The leaves turned bright red and orange in the fall. I remember the chilly evenings of raking for hours and all the fun I had jumping into them. Even if I did have to rake them up all over again after, it was worth it.

-Nicole Grgic, Master of Forest Conservation candidate


A tree that is very special to me is the maple tree in my backyard. This tree has been around for 6 years. It is the tallest tree in my garden, and I always remember it, and look at it when I pass by. It has been a symbol of harmony and progress for me.

-Yogish, Grade 12 high school student, activist and yogi


When we were in elementary school we all received trees to plant in our yards at home. I can’t remember why or what it was for. My sister and I went home that night and brought the mini trees to my parents and they helped us plant them in our backyard. I drove by the house I grew up in a few days ago (I like to do that from time to time) and the trees we planted were taller than the house and still in the backyard. I couldn’t believe that after all these years the trees were still there.

-Maissaloun Ayoub, Executive Assistant, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

There were stories of falling in love…

At the end of May my friend wanted to set me up on a blind date with her friend, Paul. He texted me a hello and asked (sweetly) what I’d like to do on our date. Since he is a carpenter, I assumed he loved and appreciated trees- and since I am an avid tree lover and future landscape architect- I suggested we meet under my favourite tree in Toronto, the willow down by the music garden at Bathurst and Queen’s Quay. We met under that tree, sat there for hours and have been in love ever since.

-Carla Lipkin, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Toronto


When I was young I had a maple tree that I would climb and hang from. One day, I was raking up the leaves since we had visitors staying with us. Their nephew came over to ask me what I was doing and why. I told him that I was raking the leaves, to tidy the backyard, but also to jump in them after. He helped me clean up the leaves and after, as I had suggested, we jumped in. All of a sudden, while we were buried under the leaves, he gave me a quick kiss, my very first kiss. I was in awe. He looked at me, smiled and said, “no, that’s the reason you rake up maple tree leaves”. Instantly, I went from being a tomboy to a girl with a crush.

-Diane Lecompte, Canadian Border Service Agency, & Jennifer’s mom 


…and moving to new places…

When I lived in Cameroon I passed a tree every time I took a moto taxi from my village to the nearby city. I lived in the Sahel region, so there weren’t many trees and this one really stood out. I still see it vividly in my mind. It was in the middle of a field; half of it was red, the other half was green. The tree looked exactly the same all year round. Coming home to my village, we always passed it after going over a small bridge and that’s how I knew that I was almost home. Over the year I spent taking that route once a week, it came to represent familiarity in a very foreign land. I never got a picture of it, because when we passed it we were going full speed on a bumpy, white knuckle moto ride but I think I prefer to keep the image of it in my memory, regardless.

-Sarah Power, Public Affairs Advisor, Aga Khan Foundation Canada


There was a scotch pine outside my window in residence at university. It brought many birds right to my window. My favourite moment with that tree was after the long, icy winter we recently had, looking out one morning and seeing robins in its branches and knowing that spring was (finally!) here.

-Allison Nichols, Trinity Bellwoods Urban Forestry intern

…or staying close to your roots…

My favourite tree is the large red oak tree outside my family cottage. As you sit inside my cozy cottage, it is the centre of attention when you look out the giant picture window. Although the view beyond the tree is a beautiful Lake Superior shoreline, my focus and admiration always remains on the tree. I love its lush crown, its rough bark and it’s long limbs that hold a tiny bird feeder. I can’t help but think of the life it has lived, surviving the long harsh winters and the windy summer days, but most importantly witnessing generations of family and memories. Oh if this tree could talk, what would it say? It has seen family members come and go, lives beginning and ending, rainy days, sunny days, and many smiles and laughs. It’s a special tree for my family and I, a protector of the cottage and a safe keeper of many happy days.

Vanessa Chambroine, Forest Health Tech, Bioforest

…and remembering the great people that are now gone…

My family had a red oak planted at East Don Parkland to commemorate my late grandfather who used to walk the trail as part of his afternoon routine. For 12 years, the tree gave us a place to remember him. Now the tree has begun to decline and it really does seem like he’s sick all over again. I know that this tree is just a symbol, and can be replaced, but I just wish it could live forever, or just a bit longer, so we can remember those times when he was alive and well.

-Janani Sivarajah, PhD candidate, University of Toronto Faculty of Forestry


When I was born in June of 1975 my father planted a lilac tree a few feet away from a great big maple we had in our front yard. As the years passed the maple was felled by a storm, but the tiny, stubborn lilac tree grew and grew and grew until it took over much of the front yard. Even after I moved out my mother would always give me a bouquet of lilacs every time I would visit in the spring. In 2002 my parents had to sell “The House” as we called it, due to my Dad being so sick from cancer. Living in apartments or condos in the city I haven’t had lilacs in my life since. However, this very day our offer to buy a duplex was accepted and if all goes well I will soon be living in a home with a backyard bordered by lilac trees: making bouquets for my own children and my mother who will live upstairs, and thinking of my Dad.

-Elizabeth Hunt, Facilitator, Learning Event Designer, Associate at percolab

Thank you to everyone who shared their stories with me. This was such an enjoyable project. Trees can help us remember good times and sometimes tough times that we might want to forget. Though I would say that even through pain, they provide solace – a breath of fresh air, at the very least.

Hope you make it out into the forest, a park or even just down a tree-lined street this week. Happy National Forest Week and National Tree Day to all!


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