A few weeks ago a spray-painted orange circle appeared on the tree in our front yard. Our old horse chestnut had been condemned to death.
A sympathetic arborist from the City of Toronto said it was no longer stable. To demonstrate, he hammered on our tree, then on others nearby. They gave off a solid sound, ours a hollow one. A hole in the trunk, often explored by squirrels, pointed to rot within. Left as it was, the tree might simply topple over one day or drop one of its branches on the street.
Not long after, a crew appeared to delimb the doomed tree. I watched from our second-floor window as a guy in a cherry picker took his chainsaw to first one branch, then another. Another guy fed the smaller branches into a roaring wood chipper. Shorn of all its majesty, the tree made a sorry sight standing there.
A couple of weeks later another crew with a crane came to take away the trunk, lifting it piece by piece into a waiting truck. In an hour, all that was left was the stump. Yet another big machine will grind the stump into oblivion. And that will be the end of it.
Our tree was one of several big chestnuts that have graced our street in the west end of downtown Toronto for generations, filling the air with the perfume of their white flowers in spring, shading the sidewalks in the humid heat of summer and dropping their shiny mahogany-brown nuts in autumn. An elderly neighbour who used to live a couple of doors down said that a dozen or so horse chestnut trees were planted on the street when she was a girl, in a time when the street was just gravel and supplies came by horse and carriage. Just a few of those trees remain on our street now.
Toronto is home to more than 10 million trees, the city’s website says. About 600,000 are street trees like our chestnut. Dutch elm disease killed most of the stately elms. The emerald ash borer is devastating the ashes. The chestnuts, though much fewer, are hardy survivors.
The horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is native to southeastern Europe. It was introduced to the British Isles from Turkey in the 16th century, becoming a common sight in parks and on city streets. Canadian Tree Tours, a group that spreads the word about how important trees are to cities, says that they “were first brought to Toronto in the early 1800s by settlers seeking to recreate the gardens of their homeland. In 1859, 500 horse chestnut trees were planted on what are now University Avenue and College and Carlton streets in preparation for the ceremonial opening of Queen’s Park and Allan Gardens by Edward, the Prince of Wales on Sept. 11, 1860.”
When I was a kid, we used to pick up the nuts and thread a bit of string through them to make “conkers,” used in an English children’s game. Our own kids sometimes kept the nuts as treasures. Removed from their spiky husks, they have the luster of some fine, oiled wood.
As an adult I often cursed our chestnut and its even bigger partner in the backyard. Though it stopped producing full nuts some years ago – perhaps a sign of what was to come – the cursed thing was always dropping something: twigs, spent flowers, sticky buds that we would track into the house on our shoes, baby nuts shredded by hungry squirrels. Having a chestnut means always sweeping, sweeping, sweeping.
Of course, we miss it like a lost friend now. The front rooms were immediately hotter without those big fans of oval leaves to protect them. The house looks naked and exposed.
The old trees that line so many residential streets are one of Toronto’s glories. They make its neighbourhoods feel sheltered and serene. They keep air-conditioning costs down and absorb pollutants. A street without a healthy row of trees looks barren.
The city has offered to give us a new tree next spring. We won’t be around to see it reach the grandeur of the old one, but we want to put something in its place all the same. Something big and tough and leafy that will be as good to the next family as the old chestnut was to us.