by Neil Carleton
I had to scratch my head when I first heard there was a magnetic tree of some sort farther down the Mississippi River valley. magnetic adj. 1 a having the properties of a magnet.
Maybe it was a local name of historical significance. Perhaps, I figured, this was a fine example of the kind of valley tree that attracted the metal axe heads of early lumber jacks. Giant white pines once dominated the forests of our region, and this could be one of the survivors.
Then I had the idea that the name might be a play on words, a kind of local forest lore. magnetic adj. 2 capable of being attracted by a magnet. In this context I thought of the very dense grain of ironwood, or hop-hornbeam, that grows across eastern Ontario. It’s so hard and tough, in fact, that early settlers could be forgiven if they thought the main component of this tree was metallic iron.
Blue-beech is another native Canadian tree that’s also known as ironwood. It has distinctive slate-gray bark that’s conspicuous because of muscle-like longitudinal ridges. The wood is extremely hard, and early settlers made wedges from it to split the logs of other kinds of trees.
I’d like to think it was good sleuthing that actually led me to this month’s shady character. Thinking back, however, maybe I was just drawn to it somehow. If this modest looking tree had this kind of power, did others know about it too?
After taking my second photo, I knew I was being watched. I left right away, but took home proof that this was indeed serious business. Was it just a coincidence that uniformed soldiers with armored vehicles were standing guard? I had to find out.
Reliable sources revealed that all would be known on the first day of the twelfth month, and not a day sooner. Come and behold they said. Actually, come at 5:00 p.m. and park near the historical five span stone bridge in Pakenham. Bring a friend, they advised. Be prepared for something special.
There was hot chocolate to sip courtesy of the Pakenham Horticultural Society. To ward off the evening cold, Society volunteers had two warm fires burning. More and more people arrived. The voices of excited children mixed with carol singing. A lone flashlight illuminated happy faces gathered around the song sheets. Here a smile, there a smile, everywhere was a smile.
A little later, Fern Martin, Co-Chair of the Pakenham Horticultural Society, gathered everyone around a little blue spruce, standing proud at 1.55 m (5’1”) tall. It had been donated the year before by Paul and Ria Ralph, of Cedarhill Christmas Tree Farm, and planted in the fall of 2011 by volunteers. The Society purchased and installed a string of solar lights, as well as a mulicoloured topper star.
Fern welcomed everyone who had gathered, then explained the origins of the Christmas tree. The ancient Egyptians, we learned, treasured and worshiped evergreens. Centuries ago, in what’s now Great Britain, the Druids used evergreens during rituals for winter solstice. Late in the Middle Ages, Scandinavians and others in Europe were placing evergreen trees in their homes, or just outside their doors, to demonstrate their hope in the forthcoming spring.
Legend has it that Martin Luther, inspired about 1500 by snow dusted evergreens on Christmas Eve, set up a little fir tree inside his house. He adorned it with candles and lit them to honour the birth of Christ. The Christmas tree tradition was likely introduced to the United States by German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio.
We also learned that the Christmas tree market was born in 1851. Catskill farmer Mark Carr brought two ox sleds of evergreens into New York city that year, and sold them all. By 1900, Fern pointed out, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and, twenty years later, the custom was pretty much universal.
The solar charged battery was connected, and everyone clapped and cheered when the lights winked on. As the children of the Cedar Hill United Church Sunday School Choir sang in their brightly-coloured winter outfits, cameras flashed and the topper star on the tree twinkled from reds to blues. This wonderful tree lighting event was part of the ‘Pakenham Country Christmas’ celebrations on December 1st.
We left with warm hearts and the smell of wood smoke on our coats. People we hadn’t even met wished us good night. One little shady character, a magnetic tree, had attracted a community to its boughs. It sure felt like Christmas.
Yes, by the way, the presence of armed vehicles was just a coincidence. The soldiers were on training maneuvers when I happened by that day to take some photos. Many people saw them at other locations across the region too.
Thank you to Sheryl Smith for her nomination of Pakenham’s magnetic tree for this month’s column.
Do you have a notable or 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, <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, 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.