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Nine years ago, a grandmother tree gave me a beautiful gift

Over the past two weeks, I've been reliving an important part of my life, namely the efforts I've made, and the blood, sweat and tears I've poured into the difficult task of saving and protecting bur oak trees in the neighbourhood where I live. The image that accompanies this post has a story behind it. It shows a fragment of bur oak bark and two acorns from a bur oak tree. I took the picture today and enhanced it using Prisma.

It all started nine years ago...

In January 2011, my husband Daniel Buckles and I got together one night with our neighbour Dennis Van Staalduinen and about 10 other people to talk about how we could "save" the huge and beautiful oak trees that just happened to be growing in our backyards and on nearby street corners. Somebody at the meeting suggested that saving might go hand-in-hand with celebrating these massive bur oaks.

For the last nine years, I've been doing both. As a would-be saviour, circumstances have sometimes cast me into the role of martyr, because, like some of the trees that have been destroyed since 2011, parts of my heart and spirit died due to the failures our group endured. Those little deaths were like whip lashes. I felt their sting, and I still do. During my time as a tree activist (something I've pretty much abandoned now), the actions of City officials proved to be obdurate and uncaring. In the 'hood where I live and, to greater effect in Kitchissippi Ward, officials issued permits to kill trees in ways that I feel made a mockery of the word "conservation" in the implementation of Ottawa's Urban Tree Conservation By-law.

As a celebrant, I've never wavered. The bur oaks I care most about are definitely worth celebrating. One of the main reasons I feel an almost mystical connection to the bur oaks in our neighbourhood is simple: they point to the great mystery. There are two ways this happens for me.

1. The bur oaks in our neighbourhood provide ecosystem and aesthetic services to humans without asking anything in return. This is as close to unconditional love as we humans can get when we interact with the more-than-human world. And what should our stance be in the face of such grace and generosity? All we need do is thank them. It's a bit like thanking the sun for having the grace and generosity to be just where it needs to be in the solar system so that life on our planet can thrive--a phenomenon I call the great mystery.

2. None of the people who first built homes in our neighbourhood planted bur oak trees. Nor did the City of Ottawa--not a single one. The Champlain Oaks grow in backyards and on some corners and street right-of-ways. No city planner or forestry official gave them permission to grow. They just grew where we see them today. Because they could. Some long-dead squirrels can take credit for burying certain acorns in the alvar ecosystem that lines this part of the Kitchi Sibi (the Great River; aka Ottawa River). Most importantly, nature's own easy way of propagating oak trees--an acorn falls to the ground, overwinters, and germinates the following spring--is probably how most of these now massive oak trees came into existence. This natural cycle of a new tree sprouting in spring happened during the span of three human generations. Some of these trees sprouted before my grandparents were born, and certainly before Canada became a country. And many people protected bur oaks from destruction in the 1950s when they were building houses on our neighbourhood's streets. Is it hyperbole to say that bur oaks in this neighbourhood are acts of god? Of the great mystery?

If you can agree with even a smidgen of that suggestion, then maybe you'll appreciate something else. I have a fragment of bark from the bur oak whose death in April 2011 broke many hearts in this neighbourhood. I'm referring to the tree that grew at 115 Northwestern Avenue, a giant and sturdy bur oak memorialized since December 2017 in an outdoor display at the doorway to the park's field house and with a permanent display inside the community building.

The gift a grandmother oak gave me

The date was April 20, 2011. It was a late-winter day that dished out every kind of nasty weather April is capable of mustering. The wind was a banshee. The skies above Ottawa spewed out rain, sleet and snow. Not a bud was visible on any tree. Noon was almost as dark as dusk. It was an unsettling day, all the more so because our fledgling Champlain Oaks project had announced that we had permission to gather acorns from the giant oak tree at 115 Northwestern that was slated to be demolished. About 50 people (some from outside our neighbourhood) and two newspaper reporters showed up to honour the tree on that frigid evening. Children wrote love letters to the bur oak and hung their missives from its branches. Adults with shovels and spades helped to scrape away ice and snow so kids could search for acorns in the backyard where the boarded up windows of an abandoned house told a story of neglect. The house had been vacant for at least 5 years. Only the tree stood solid, sure of its place on and in the earth. I'd been feeling shaky and teary all day but being in the tree's presence and bolstered by the caring people who had come to our event, I walked home with Daniel feeling almost peaceful.

When we got home, as I was emptying items from a cloth bag I'd taken to the event, a small piece of oak bark fell to our kitchen floor. I had not removed any bark from the tree, so I had no idea how this piece of bur oak skin had gotten into my bag. Yes, at some point during the evening, I had hugged the huge tree--not all the way around because its diameter was more than a meter. I snuggled up close to one part and felt its power, knowing that soon the life it embodied would undergo a surgical beheading and delimbing. [In fact, it took humans more than 6 days to destroy the massive tree.] Maybe this small piece of bark was a parting gift? I accepted it as such and have treasured it for the last nine years, because, in the end, like Iris DeMent sings, I guess I'll just let the {great] mystery be! --Debra Huron

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