Towering Giants

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They’re towering giants that live amongst us, and they’re much older than anybody in the community. These are the shady characters of renown we pass by every day.

As the dominant life form of the landscape, they’re remarkable for their size and shapes, and their ever changing colours and shadows during the seasons. The silhouette of a white pine at dusk, or the brilliance of scarlet leaves on a sugar maple, is remembered forever. From canvas to sculpture, trees have been used as bold artistic symbols of our relationship to the earth.

To the delight of outdoor enthusiasts, they’re home to a myriad of birds that arrive in waves each year from distant locations. Animals and insects have depended on them for millennia too, as a critical element in the complex cycle of life we share with all living things.

The denizens of our urban and rural pathways have witnessed many changes, from horse drawn wagons on dusty roads to the arrival and even demise of the railway. In the lifetime of a tree, it wasn’t that long ago when the largest wings in the sky were eagles, not silver birds on high carrying passengers.

The shady characters we recognize today are survivors. Standing tall, they sometimes bear the scars of a climate that can include searing heat with drought, then ice storms before a short year is over. As the land was cleared for farming and firewood in our part of the world, and whole forests cut to supply sawmills with logs, some trees were spared. Although many stories of those circumstances are gone with the people of that time, we can marvel that some of these impressive trees are still with us.

Trees are always facing a challenge. Having escaped the axe or crosscut saw a century and a half ago, some have succumbed in recent years to invasive species of insects. Others have had to come down after whole sections were caught like sails by strong winds and came crashing down. This month’s story is about one of those trees in Almonte.

A neighbourhood charmer, the big maple that grew at 42 Shepherd Street, close to the house next door, was a fixture for decades not far from the Rosamond No. 1 mill complex, now the Millfall Condominiums. Taller than the houses on either side, it had a big branch that extended out over the sidewalk to the street. This gave it a distinctive shape, and was a good shade zone for walkers who were out regularly for exercise and fresh air. It was noted too for its fall colours each year. Planting garden beds of any sort underneath this maple was a challenge because little moisture ever made it to the ground under its dense canopy.

For any strollers who were able to take a closer look, this shady character had a distinctive coarse bark. When the landscape of the street was exploding with life in the spring, all the action was up in the leaves that seemed to double in size each day as the days got longer and warmer. 

Shepherd Street Maple BEFORE 4 September 26 2011

The big wind that brought down branches and trees around town also claimed the maple on Shepherd Street. A large section broke off and crashed down, fortunately without damage to property or injury to anyone. A close inspection determined that it wouldn’t be safe to leave the tree standing.

It was taken down from the top, one section at a time. After a big branch was secured and tested with the crane, it was cut and lowered down. Communications were carried on between the crane operator and the cutter on the tree by two-way radios with headsets. It was a quiet operation. When the sawdust was brushed off the stump, a ring count confirmed that it was close to being a century tree.

When a street tree comes down, a neighbourhood is suddenly changed. When the physical presence of the tree is gone, so is the big promise of spring on that spot, the ritual of its fall leaves, and the familiarity of the landscape.

 Shepherd Street Maple BEFORE 1 September 26 2011

Dramatic changes occur when a tree comes down in the woods, whether from high winds, a lightening strike, or even selective cutting. An opening in the canopy allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, and an opportunity is created for new life. Dormant seeds sprout and soon new trees are reaching for the sky. It seems to happen so quickly.

Thank you to Bruce Kingsley for nominating the Shepherd Street maple for this month’s column.

Do you have a favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <carle@magma.ca >, or Neil Carleton, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with local shady characters.