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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

It is my curse to have been born with two black thumbs. That is, over the years I have managed to keep children and pets alive, but plants? Not so much. My gardening past is littered with carrots that came out of the earth looking like beef jerky and cactuses that would flourish on the moon but preferred death to one more day in my care.

So when I phoned the City of Toronto to request a tree for the front yard and they asked what type I wanted, I considered saying: Anything unkillable. Maybe a pine tree with metal needles, so popular at Christmas on the orange shag rugs of my childhood. Or one of those little plastic palms you get in a strawberry daiquiri. Instead, I asked for a sugar maple.

Up and down my streets, there are fantastic copses of trees and shrubs – ash and maple and birch and pine, barberry and hawthorn – but also sad little bald spots. My neighbour’s giant elm is a survivor of the blight that killed most of its relatives in the 1980s and now it towers over the neighbourhood, remembering what the rest of us cannot.

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Someone made a short film about the history of our street and one of the older residents spoke about what had been lost since he was a boy in the 1930s: “One thing I miss most is the butterflies and the bees and the ants. You don’t see a grasshopper! These things have all gone from our city. Someday, people will think more about what we’re losing because these are things that we can’t bring back.” Another neighbour remembered a canopy so famous that the old Toronto Telegram would publish pictures of the summer bounty under the headline, “Avenue of Trees.”

But then, urban life took over, which meant death for trees. Cars needed front-pad parking. Roots got into drainage systems. Leaves were a gutter-clogging nuisance. Deadly beetles and blight did their business. Now, like many cities, Toronto is attempting to reverse the damage. Its forest strategy aims to have 40 per cent canopy cover in the city by 2050; currently it’s about 24 per cent.

If you ask, the city will come and plant a tree on the bit of front yard that it technically owns. For free! A tree for free. That alone seems like a miracle. The message came back from the city: The best tree for our lawn was a Freeman Maple. This would have seemed like fate, if I believed in fate. My favourite great-uncle was named Freeman and I spent the best parts of childhood summers playing on his tree farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. He and my great-aunt grew practically everything they ate. When I went out to pick the lettuce and came back with the whole plant, including dirt-dripping roots, he never scolded me. That lettuce might have been screaming, but Uncle Freeman, a farmer and a gentleman, said nothing.

The city workers came and put Freeman in the ground, calling a hasty reminder over their shoulders: “Remember to water it!” This was more advice than I got when I left the hospital with actual human babies, so I was grateful. It seemed so small, this little tree. It was hard to believe that it would be 20 metres high when I am mulch, but I read it on the Internet so it must be true.

I also wondered what good one little tree could do, in the face of so much harm we’ve already committed. Like 80 per cent of Canadians in a recent poll, I’m worried about climate change. “Worried” might be too mild a word. I’ve wondered what I can do: stop eating meat? Stop flying? Vote for people who aren’t idiots? Plant a tree? Unlike Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, I don’t have the power to create forests all over the city or “islands of freshness” in the delightful Parisian phrase. What could Freeman do on its own?

A lot, it appears. I turned for comfort and guidance to Janet McKay, executive director of Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests (LEAF), a non-profit that plants trees and raises awareness about urban forests. It turns out that private homeowners are precisely the people who need to step up. Increased housing development and paved industrial spaces means that most of the room for new planting in the city sits on private land, Ms. McKay said. “Because the space for increasing the urban canopy is on private land, we have to help people shift their thinking. The one tree or shrub that I plant in my yard is part of a bigger picture. Together, they’re helping all of our health and all of our comfort, especially in the face of climate change.”

I hadn’t realized all the ways that urban forests help mitigate the effect of climate change, until Ms. McKay began to list them. The trees’ leaves act as a buffer during sudden intense storms, so that the city’s storm sewers aren’t overwhelmed. The soft ground under them acts as a sponge to soak up storm water. Leaves also absorb pollution. Trees offer shade for people and houses, which can reduce reliance on air conditioners. Ms. McKay’s group, which runs a subsidized backyard tree-planting program, also has a campaign called Bees Love Trees to remind people that trees are excellent pollinators. “And on top of that we also get all these co-benefits of beauty and mental health and wildlife habitat and privacy,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

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That made me look at Freeman differently. No longer a sad sapling, it’s now a part of an army fighting for the future. Which means that I can no longer hold up my two toxic thumbs as an excuse. I’ve got to try to keep this thing alive, so I’ll be over here with a hose if you need me. Until then, have a green and happy Canada Day.

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