With Respect to Trees
Updated: Mar 27
The first "tree" to capture my attention is manufactured from aluminum poles and cording. My mother uses it for drying laundry. Planted in the backyard below my bedroom window, its engineered geometry and dangling socks are an invitation to the neighbourhood birds, one of which I want to hold in my hands. It is 1959; my family lives on the RCAF base in North Bay; I am six years old, and I have a plan.
It involves a plastic beach pail, kitchen string, torn bread, and me hiding upstairs in my bedroom. Crucial to my plan is my bedroom storm window which has a wooden bar that swings open to reveal three large ventilation holes. I carefully thread yards and yards of string through one of the holes, more than enough to reach the laundry tree from my window. Then, I run downstairs and out into the backyard to tie the free end of the string to the red handle of my yellow beach pail partially filled with water. By standing on the stool my mother keeps handy, I manage to balance the pail on top of the laundry tree’s centre post. I tear up a slice of Wonder bread to scatter on the cement pad beneath. Back upstairs in my room I adjust the tension on the string, confident the pail will tip when I give it a tug. My goal? To render an unsuspecting sparrow temporarily flightless. When I put on my pajamas after my bath, I am already dreaming of the wet bird that will be mine to hold in the morning sunshine.
Which, of course, never happened.
Flash forward to 2021 where the backyard of our Fredericton home is populated with real trees—coniferous and deciduous, along with cedar hedges and small groupings of cedar trees, and a variety of shrubs, all alive with birds which shelter and nest among them. A few years ago, I’d noticed how the buckthorn bush next to a window that faces our backyard drew in birds for its berries in late summer, rekindling my fascination to know birds better. Little did I know at the time that this would also mean getting to know trees better, or that in doing so I’d feel so enriched.
Six years back we planted a serviceberry outside an east facing window, principally as a privacy screen. Two summers later we added a hummingbird feeder and another serviceberry, this one a shrub. The whole picture is a hub of activity, the serviceberries standing as jealously guarded, entertaining hummingbird outposts. (At this point, it must be said that when perched on a branch, a ruby-throat is a dead ringer for a serviceberry leaf. No casual observer would likely spot it nor guess what territorial ferocity lies within that tiny avian heart.) Last summer we planted a third serviceberry, which in time will shade our air conditioner, but the birds enjoy them all.
We had no idea when we moved to Fredericton fifteen years ago that our home would ultimately draw our attention so rewardingly to avian life in the backyard. Or that identifying species of birds would inspire deeper appreciation for trees, which they most certainly have. Birds and trees once blended into the background of my life; now they are subjects of study and delight.
Virtually attending Jim Goltz’s recent presentation about the trees of New Brunswick, courtesy Trees Matter Fredericton, was revelatory. It made me feel as though I’d been wandering through life with impaired vision suddenly corrected by a pair of glasses designed for the express purpose of magnifying and bringing trees into clear focus. I’d never heard of and certainly never seen ‘tree hairs’ before—just for example—so my sudden exposure to what they are, to see them in photos, and to learn of their purpose in thwarting tree pests made my own hair stand on end. The very label somehow changed my diffuse notion of trees by bringing specificity to bear. And not to anthropomorphise, for trees are trees and people are people, but the very notion of tree hairs just completely shook my concept of what comprises tree-ness in the first place!
A recently aired episode of The Nature of Things held me rapt as David Suzuki talked about the ways in which individual tree species communicate and support one another, the science of it indisputable. I know that that notion is likely fully explored in my copy of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, given to me several years ago by my prescient brother-in-law, and as yet (embarrassingly) still unread. I’ve retrieved it from the bookshelf; it’s waiting for me on my bedside table.
Earlier today I stood at the window and watched several dozen redpolls descend the open arms of the maples, making their ways to the feeders and the snow-covered ground below. What a privilege it is to witness such an unremittingly cheerful sight. I never tire of it, partly because I know it’s fleeting. As spring approaches, according to a quick check in one of my bird books, I understand that the redpolls will flock north to their summer breeding grounds in the subarctic forests and the shrubs of the northern tundra. Feathered miracles. It stretches my imagination to consider all the species of birds wintering far to the south that before too long will begin their perilous journeys back to their summer nesting grounds. Meanwhile, the trees remain. Some of them frame this small parcel of land I call home. They are standing by to receive the returning birds. Patiently. And all the while, I’m grateful for their company and plan to get to know them even better.