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Trees get respect at certain times of the year: with the first green of spring, as summer shade, then through the blaze of fall and dressed in winter white. Right now, they are finished their starring holiday roles in our homes and are treated a little less grandly. Evergreens of all sizes, stripped of their festive trimmings, are dragged curbside for pickup.
But as I sweep up the inevitable trail of dry needles, I think of a different variety altogether: our neighbourhood street trees, the waifs, the Tiny Tims of the tree world.
I am part of a small army of neighbourhood women who tend to the local trees dotting both sides of our main commercial strip. Our street trees are maples, Japanese silk lilacs, honey locusts, ginkgos – some 65 in total.
Some are planted directly into the ground and others are confined to the ineffective cement planter boxes known as tree coffins.
These trees put up with freezing cold and baking heat, drought, road salt, dog blessings, cigarette butts and garbage. Street trees fight to survive if not exactly thrive.
I care for them, but I wasn’t always a tree lover. Growing up in Britain, trees were literally on the margins of life. They grew at the borders of country fields and as hedgerows along the lanes.
As children, we climbed them, foraged under them for chestnuts and acorns or checked them out for bird’s nests. Trees in my adopted home of Canada were a whole different matter. Driving “up north” in Ontario for the first time was a revelation. It was mind-boggling to see the density and the numbers of trees.
Back home in Toronto, I gradually took up gardening and came to tend a few trees and bushes of my own. Inevitably, gardening teaches you to see the connection between living things.
You think about the larger environment and how one thing affects another. I grew interested in the global environment, read up and donated to causes. But I realized that it was locally where I might make a real difference. So, a few years ago, I turned my attention to the tough little urban trees drying out in front of neighbourhood stores.
At first, I travelled solo – badgering the owners of restaurants and shops to spare a bucket or two of water for the trees rapidly turning brown in the summer heat out front.
I sought out support from the non-profit LEAF (Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests), and got the backing of my city councillor.
Like the street trees, I wonder if our work is seen as part of the local landscape – someone else’s concern.
It lent legitimacy to the cause: I was a tree enthusiast rather than a local weirdo. I named the initiative Bayview Buckets – a tad more catchy than Bayview Watering Cans.
The past year has seen progress. The neighbourhood has a new BIA (business improvement area) and now I am but part of a group of volunteers with a goal.
We plant, water, weed, mulch and generally try to keep our street trees green and clean.
My fellow volunteers are all older women. While you may think that’s the typical leisure gardener demographic, we see ourselves as serious workers for a green and healthy community. We have different personalities and our past careers run the gamut, including an urban planner, fashion designer, marketer, restauranteur and teacher. We sweat and freeze according to the season and we get things done.
A group e-mail sent on a Sunday night brings us together weekly at our outdoor headquarters, behind one of the stores. We load brooms, shovels and gardening tools onto our squeaky-wheeled carts to trundle off down the street. It was a dry summer.
But our leader has sourced water by assiduously saving whatever fell from the sky at HQ, storing it in any container that didn’t leak, to be decanted into more manageable bins and buckets and meted it out to the thirsty greenery.
One happy day, we chatted up the drivers of a city water truck working on the street. They filled up our containers with clean water, which felt like a true gift!
Like the street trees, I wonder if our work is seen as part of the local landscape – someone else’s concern. That attitude concerns me: As I age, someone else will need to take my place on the team.
I want to say to passersby, “Look around at these trees! They give all of us city dwellers shade and beauty. They absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. They calm us down on these noisy, often frenzied city streets.”
Winter is upon us now and work has slowed down. I look out at a Scots pine in my front yard, about seven feet tall now and standing against the wind. I grew it up from a seed that I took from our own family Christmas tree some years ago. Not the most beautiful variety, but this one is lovely and meaningful to us.
Still, my sense of home doesn’t end where the public sidewalk begins. This green space, this treed community, it is for us all.
So, in this season of trees, consider giving back and paying forward. If you can’t fix the planet, you can at least green your own neighbourhood. Join us.
Helen Godfrey lives in Toronto.