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To all the Trees I've Loved Before

by Carly Ziter

This is a tree love story. Or perhaps more accurately, a tree love letter. An overdue thank you to the tall, strong, unwavering constants in the many places I have lived.

There are, or course, many reasons to love trees. Trees – as I so often point out when wearing my professor hat – provide myriad benefits to people. They shade us and cool the air. Filter pollutants. Provide food and shelter for beneficial birds and insects that bring us joy and pollinate our gardens. They give us wood to build the perfect crackling campfire, and paper to write on. But trees also provide something much less tangible, and arguably much richer. A sense of place and belonging. Somewhere to sit and contemplate your day. A meeting point for friends. We get to know them as individuals. And it is for these reasons, more than for their shade or the carbon in their trunks, that I remember and appreciate my own favourite trees.

And I find myself reflecting on this now in particular because – having just moved and on the precipice of a new, big, job – I am caught in the space between an old life and a new beginning. That ever-so-brief point of transition when you’ve mostly wrapped up loose ends from the past, but your new life hasn’t quite yet reached full speed. A space that lends itself to reflection and nostalgia.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a new space for me. As an academic, I’ve moved a lot in the past decade. Started over a lot. In somewhere between 5 and 8 cities... depending on what counts as long enough to ‘live’ somewhere. I’m not so unusual in this, of course. I suspect many readers of this blog are following a similar journey. And these meandering journeys might be measured, and remembered, in many ways. Perhaps you recall your past through apartments and homes lived in (That quirky apartment without a bathroom sink, but cheap rent, and a great roommate! The house with the perfect sunroom, and space for a canoe out back. The slightly decrepit field station you called home for 2 summers). You might also categorize your path by schools attended or jobs worked. Or maybe you think back in terms of people: neighbours and landlords and cups of tea with friends down the street. And I, too, measure my journey in all of these things.

But I also measure it in trees.

Carly's paper birch in her childhood backyard (left) and in a place of honor at her wedding (right). Wedding photograph by Veronique Moisan.

My childhood paper birch (Betula papyrifera). A sprawling, multi-trunked tree perfect for climbing with short arms and legs. How much of my childhood was spent in its branches? Thinking, dreaming, playing with friends. How many awkward family photos did it witness?

A large garry oak stands in the middle of an open field
Garry Oak (Quercus garryana)

The formidable, moss and lichen-covered garry oak (Quercus garryana) on the nature preserve where I spent the summers of my junior and senior year of undergrad. The site of a hundred field-season lunches. Emblematic of a place where I not only learned to be a scientist, but learned to be independent. Learned a lot about being a person in this world.

The towering bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in Madison’s Orton Park – visited regularly throughout my PhD. A tree old enough to have witnessed the surrounding land’s transition from Madison’s original cemetery to its very first city park. Beloved not just by me, but a whole community as center stage of a long-running neighbourhood festival. Home, two nights per summer, to lights and silk ropes and acrobats. But special every other day of the year, too.

There are others, of course. The gorgeous tulip tree on McGill’s Mac campus, that greeted me after every long morning shuttle ride throughout a masters degree. The lilac in the corner of the first home I owned myself, in Newfoundland. A small tree, that somehow withstood all the wind and rain and snowstorms “The Rock” could throw at it.

These trees of course, cannot move cities, but are left behind. And yet, they have had a way of traveling along this journey with me, even when I thought I’d moved on. Plant love stories that intertwine with human love stories. My now-husband (without ever having set eyes on it before that day) proposed to me under the very same garry oak of my undergrad days. And branches from my childhood birch – tragically felled in a recent storm – unexpectedly adorned our wedding venue this fall. A gift from my father, who brought them the 900km from home to surprise me. They now sit on the mantle in my new home. A reminder of where I’ve come from, and the people that got me here.

MSc students Emily and Serena, and Carly (from left to right) planting trees at Concordia's Loyola Campus.

I haven’t yet met my favourite tree in my new neighbourhood. These things take some time. But as I look out my office window I spy a small grove of birch trees in the courtyard on campus (Betula pendula, perhaps?). And I’m going to take it as a good sign that I’ve landed in the right place.

Carly Ziter is a new assistant professor at Concordia University in Montreal, where she studies and teaches urban ecology, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. She has had an inordinate fondness for trees for as long as she can remember. In true absentminded professor fashion, Carly wrote this article on her phone, promptly forgot about it, and only re-discovered it a year later. At the initial time of writing, Carly was in her first week of a new faculty job at Concordia University. In the year since, students, staff, and colleagues came together to plant 185 new trees on Concordia’s Loyola campus. She hasn’t had time to get to know them yet, but she has a sneaking suspicion that a new favourite tree is among them, waiting. Maybe she even planted it herself.


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