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The red oak on North York's 159 St. Lucie Drive. (handout photo)
The red oak on North York's 159 St. Lucie Drive. (handout photo)

North York community celebrates one of Ontario’s oldest trees Add to ...

The red oak on North York’s St. Lucie Drive has been there for more than 300 years. Indigenous people travelling a busy trade route passed it. A French explorer wrote about the forest in which it stood.

Its base is massive – nearly five metres around – but weather has gotten the better of the tree. Since a storm cracked the trunk a decade ago, water and rot have worked their way into the fissure; last year, most of it was cut down after the city said it was a hazard.

Now historians, artists and the local police division’s community volunteers have come together to commemorate the tree in a Canada 150 project. They will give artists pieces of wood to make into art and donate for display around the community.

Volunteer and wood carver Trevor Comer first thought of the idea; he brought home a waist-high chunk of limb to chisel into an large acorn. He hopes to display it in the local community centre. Maybe, he says, if a child can touch his sculpture, they’ll get a sense of how big the tree was. The shape of his project is sentimental; he wants the oak to go back into the community as a seed.

Mr. Comer is nervous about working with the wood – it’s twice as old as Canada, after all – but he wants to show people the relic of natural history that they walk by every day.

“It’s [bringing] nature back to the people in the area – and nothing says Canada like a very large tree.”

Cameron McCuaig will make a print of the tree’s rings using a cross-section of its stump. He’s a tree enthusiast who travels the country to turn the ridges of old wood into art. With every print, he includes a summary of the tree’s life.

“Trees play a critical part of what made Canada and it tells the story of Canada,” he says.

Long before Toronto existed, the tree was part of Ontario’s oak savannah, along with a sister tree that towers over a bungalow a 10-minute walk away.

The other oak has fared better, largely thanks to its protectors; its last owner was its constant gardener for almost 50 years. Both it and the St. Lucie tree are recognized heritage trees. The oaks are thought to be anywhere from 300 to 350 years old, but the tree on St. Lucie Drive won’t be properly dated until more of it is cut down.

Local historian Madeleine McDowell says large oaks were markers for people travelling the Toronto Carrying Place Trail, which connected Lake Simcoe in Southern Ontario to the Great Lakes and was a major trade route. In their early years, the trees were probably part of a large canopy that the French explorer La Salle mentioned in a report to his king. When fur-trade pioneer Alexander Henry took the trail in 1764, they would have been mature.

The tree’s stump will be left in the ground and made into a table, but Ms. McDowell wishes more of it could be saved.

“You don’t get the same feeling looking down at a stump, even if the distance across and the rings in it tell you a great deal.”

Giulio Villani has lived next door to the oak for 45 years. He’s raised children and grown old in its shadow. Once, he climbed to the top to fly an Italian flag. He watched one of the tree’s saplings grow up and talks about the two oaks as though they’re his old friends.

“It’s real sad to see a giant go.”

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