Chinese proverb: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is now.
The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit. ~Nelson Henderson
Trees. You can’t have too many of them.
When we first moved here in 1972, Dutch elm disease was gradually denuding much of our property. The graceful trees near the house succumbed within a couple of years. The shade groves in the pastures followed suit, as did the beautiful old trees along the river bank. During the early 70s, the Ontario government paid landowners to cut down diseased elms, so for our first few years on the farm, when we heated the house entirely with wood, the government paid for our winter’s heat.
This picture, taken in the early spring, probably our second year on the farm, shows the house, yard, and barnyard with just a few trees standing. A pine in the front yard, an ash between the house and the barn. There’s another big pine to the left of this photo. All those are still there.
We gradually replaced some of the elms with a couple of oaks, a couple of ashes, some birch trees. One fanciful day, we dug up three poplar saplings from a field down the road and had each child plant one in the front yard: Erica’s tree, Robin’s tree, Galen’s tree. We staked them and watered them. But we live on a river. With beavers. I’m not sure which child’s tree the beavers got to first. Poplars are fast-growing but short-lived, and a favourite breakfast treat of Canada’s national rodent. In the end, one survived. That one eventually rotted from the inside out and fell. I’m glad I don’t remember which child’s tree met which sad end.
We were slow learners. When my grandfather died, we planted a tree in his memory. We took pictures of the planting to send to my grandmother. It wasn’t a poplar…but whatever it was, it died not long after he did. For years, I took photos of an entirely different tree, a volunteer ash, to send to Grammy: Pappy’s tree. See how it’s growing!
In fact, during the years we were farming, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about trees, but we welcomed every one that came along. Digging up trees along a fence line? We’ll plant it in the yard. Clearing your back field? We’d love a birch clump. I’m not sure when we noticed that elm saplings were growing along the fence between the house and the barn, where their grand old predecessors had been. The disease had run its course, and the elms were returning. Ashes were cropping up too, and wherever a tree wanted to grow, we gave it permission. Lawn-mowing became a slalom course.
One ambitious year, we planted a row of spruce trees along the road. Scrubby little things, now a dense privacy screen.
Then, perhaps ten years ago, we heard that the Dutch elm had returned. In a panic, because we now had three lovely big elms, I contacted scientists at our local forest research centre who referred me to Larry, an arborist. Larry’s been visiting our property every year since, treating the elms and now the ashes which are threatened by the ash borer.
Here we are today, forty years after that first springtime photo.
But this year, despite the effort we’ve put into it, our finest elm—now forty years old and as large as its predecessors—has been showing signs of the disease. Larry’s given it an extra dose of medicine and is hopeful. But there are not guarantees.
In the meantime, I’ve begun to think we may have overdone the tree thing. Amazingly, we do sit under the shade of trees we’ve planted. I love watching them bud out in the spring, wondering every year if the ashes are always this late. I love the rustling of the leaves (not so much the raking…) and the morning songs of the birds.
But I do miss being able to see the uninterrupted view of the hill and the expanse of fields looking down the valley.
The volunteer ashes are becoming increasingly expensive to protect from the encroaching emerald ash borer, and new little ones keep cropping up.
Can you have too many trees?
Maybe. A few.