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If you spend enough time wandering through the woods, eventually you start naming things within them – swamps, rocks, trees.
Giving names to familiar places and major landmarks helps you find your way around in the woods and makes you feel closely connected to nature.
The names my hiking friends and I have given to places in the woods north of Kingston include Moby Dick Rock, Lookout Rock, Tiny Tim Swamp and Taliban Swamp. Each name has a story.
We feel that some sites in the woods are sacred and have named them accordingly. We called one the Cave and another the Shrine.
Over the years we’ve created paintings on the walls of the Cave using charred piec es of wood from fires made to cook deer, moose and bear meat we’d carried through the woods on our backs. Our primitive drawings include a buck, a great blue heron and a beaver with a small round head, a big humped body and a long flat tail.
At the Shrine, we leave animal parts we’ve found while hiking. Deer antlers, turtle shells, beaver skulls, and other bones and teeth are carried and carefully placed at the Shrine by the person who found them. We hang some of these treasures from tree branches so animals can’t drag them away to gnaw on.
While standing at the Shrine I sometimes say, “If anyone hiking in these woods stumbles upon this place, they’ll probably take off fast and never come back. I know I would.”
We have only named two trees. One is called the Sentinel Pine.
It towers above the tree line to the east and can been seen from great distances due to its enormous width and height. If you can see it, you know where you are in the woods.
The other tree was named Tommy Thomson Pine in honour of Tom Thomson, the Claremont, Ont.-born artist who influenced a group of Canadian painters later known worldwide as the Group of Seven.
I recently met one of my hiking friends in town. We often pass near a Kingston landmark named the Royal Military College of Canada while walking to and from work.
When I asked him how it was going he said, “Something big has happened in the woods.”
Before I could ask what it was, he said, ”the Tommy Thomson Pine has fallen down. You named it. Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, of course I remember. When I called it the Tommy Thomson Pine you corrected me and said his name is Tom Thomson. But my name stuck.”
From that day on we’d called it the Tommy Thomson Pine.
The Tommy Thomson Pine is located on top of a high granite ridge stained white with turkey vulture droppings. It overlooks a small round lake we often visit during our hikes.We walk across the lake during the winter and swim there in summer.
We have sat on the ridge waiting for the sun to rise and set. We have slept, cooked, eaten meals and watched wildlife from that place during all hours of the day, all seasons of the year, all kinds of weather, and all states of mind.
We have heard loons cry and coyotes howl from that ridge. We have howled there ourselves. We have watched turkey vultures float past at eye level. A big buck once swam along the shoreline beneath us, and a hungry coyote chased a desperate doe into the water, then out, and up a ridge on the other side of the lake.
Through it all, the Tommy Thomson Pine was there with us.
Of course, that tree reminded me of Thomson’s famous painting The Jack Pine, painted in 1917, the year the artist died in mysterious circumstances during a canoe trip in Algonquin Park. I have stood in front of the painting at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa many times.
It may be the most famous painting created by a Canadian. It depicts a large jack pine standing alone and beaten down by the Canadian wilderness. The once proud and mighty tree is standing on a rock ridge. Its branches are stooped and its foliage partly stripped away. It is standing beside the stumps of other jack pines that were also once proud and mighty.
The peaceful side of nature is also depicted in Thomson’s painting. Below the jack pine is a calm lake, and in the distance a beautiful sunset, and dark rolling hills with melting snow portraying the promise of spring.
Like all powerful paintings, Thomson’s Jack Pine spoke to me when I stood looking at it.
It said, “You have seen me in other places. You know me well. I am part of you.”
But I did not know that it was inside me until a long time later. I knew it the day I heard its spirit speak again. This time it spoke with my voice.
It happened in the woods when I named that tree standing on the ridge over the lake.
It happened when I said, “That’s the Tommy Thomson Pine.”
Now, the Tommy Thomson Pine is gone. It has become just another rotting log slowly returning to the earth.
But just like the most famous tree ever painted in Canada, there will never be another Tommy Thomson Pine.
Larry Oakley lives in Kingston.