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Facts & Arguments

I hated planting these saplings when I was a kid, but now I see the forest for the trees, Jeannette Dowson writes

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Childhood is a time of hope and shadows. Part of learning how to endure adversity is to know that darkness is temporary, like an eclipse. Planting trees taught me this truth.

Fed by the sun and the soil, trees are the most noble organisms on Earth. All they need is an appropriate site and time. Planting trees is an optimistic act – it's a nod to the future and to the hope that the world can get better. Besides benefiting water tables, reducing pollution, creating animal habitats and a whole host of other things too numerous to mention, trees and forests are good for the human soul.

The spring after my dad died, I helped plant a forest. I didn't want to; in fact, I was conscripted into it. However, I think it has become one of the most healing things I've ever done.

My dad died in February, 1975. I was 13 and the world spun out from beneath my feet. I remember floating through the darkest months of the year feeling semi-present and dizzy with grief. My father's death had left me emotionally concussed. The idea that children would need counselling and support groups to process such trauma was decades away.

My extended family tried to lend a hand. They tried to rally and step into the role that my easygoing, fun, kind father had filled. They'd take my siblings, Wally and Elly, and me on weekend trips to the country to my aunt and uncle's place. Both my Uncle Murray and Aunt Lois were high-school teachers. Childless in their personal lives, they still figured themselves experts in the fostering of character in youth. Their answer to our needs was to supply us with structure and discipline. Staying with them at their summer home felt more like living in an army barracks then being "at the cottage." They were more comfortable with lists of chores, a stiff upper lip and tasks to be completed. Dwelling within emotion and grief was like speaking a foreign language in a land where only rationality and actions counted.

Planting trees was a way to keep me, my sister and brother busy, one more thing on the list of tasks to be checked off. At that time, the Ontario Ministry of Lands and Forests gave away sapling trees in bundles of 500. Never one to turn down free resources, Lois ordered a mix of 3,000 spruce and pine. They were tiny: Each individual tree was no more than a tuft of needles on a twig, no taller than a hand span, including their small and delicate roots.

To plant saplings, you need a shovel, a stiff pair of boots and a sack to carry your supply. These saplings would be planted on six or seven acres in what had previously been a farmer's field left fallow for a generation.

The work is physically demanding, but the movements are simple: One, two, three paces, drive the shovel into the ground, create a slit in the sod, push in a tree. Repeat. It was hard work. That buggy, humid spring weekend, six of us planted all 3,000 trees in the hot sun. I remember thinking it felt as though we were engaged in the reforestation of the entire Amazon Basin.

That was long ago. In between then and now I, too, have become a teacher. To Lois and Murray's credit, they did what they thought was correct. We are all products of our time and place, but I consider many of the lessons I learned from my aunt and uncle more like cautionary tales. Structure is good and even necessary, but I know kindness is a far better practice to foster tender hearts and young minds.

These days, when my sister and I drive along Highway 401 to Montreal to visit my mom, we always note the turnoff for the old cottage near Deseronto. My aunt sold that property more than three decades ago and the last time I saw it, I was in my early 20s and the trees that had taken root were no taller than me.

This past August, Elly and I decided to stop to look. The timing of our detour conveniently coincided with the impending eclipse and this was as good a place as any to view it, we thought.

As we walked the old property, the day dimmed while the moon and the sun brushed by each other in the sky. There is something magnificent about the fleeting nature of an eclipse and the unfathomable size and choreography of the celestial bodies involved. Timing is everything and this eclipse reminded me of the value of looking up and outside my world. A piece of me felt as though it had come full circle.

The buildings that my aunt and uncle were so intent on keeping up with chores and repairs had fallen into disrepair. But our trees – they were striking. What had once been an open, fallow field filled with saplings thinner than the diameter of a pencil had been replaced by a deep, green forest with trees taller than houses. The trees had overcome and so had I. I felt linked in kinship to them.

On our walk back to the car it occurred to me that a lot can happen in four decades. For humans, it's more or less half a lifetime; for saplings, it's enough time to grow into a forest. That I had a small hand in creating it is surprisingly humbling and deeply satisfying. This was impossible for me to see or understand that spring when I was blind with grief. More than 40 years later, I see this forest as a sublime gift for that troubled 13-year-old.

Jeannette Dowson lives in Toronto.