Monday, October 25, 2021

life of a sidewalk tree

Our front door abuts the sidewalk. Anything that happens on the sidewalk I hear through the windows. People walking past, talking, laughing, arguing and scolding, walking dogs, bouncing a basketball, rolling a grocery buggy or a washing machine strapped onto a dolly. They pass so closely that I could reach out and touch their heads. They can see into my windows as well, although generally they don't look because that's the unspoken understanding (cf Jane Jacobs on the "intricate ballet" of sidewalk behaviour), which I have to admit I don't necessarily respect myself. The sidewalk is the border between private and public. Cats, squirrels, and raccoons use it too. 

Given that it's a length of concrete, it's fabulous to have a few trees shading it. When we moved here 20 years ago, there was a beech tree in front of the house. It gave me a screen of leaves throughout spring and summer, and in the autumn the leaves turned brilliant yellow. Even the bare branches in the winter were preferable to seeing directly into the neighbours' windows across the street. (Sure, I could put up curtains but then I might as well have a wall.) 

Sparrows liked taking the morning sun in the tree, even though I didn't always like how loudly they CHIRPED about their prowess or the sun or food source or any of the many topics of sparrow communication. My office is on the second floor, so I was as close to the sparrows in the crown of the tree as I would be to passersby on the sidewalk below. When the sparrows got too loud and monotonous, I CHIRPED back at them until they moved along. Starlings visited the tree too, though they preferred the larger century-old cottonwoods in the back alley. Starlings congregate in larger groups.

The birds were loudest in the spring and summer. The part of the avian brain that controls song shrinks at end of breeding season. Their testes too--for a sparrow from the size of a baked bean to a pinhead. No, I don't know what kind of baked bean, nor what size of pin, but you get the idea. My source for this is the excellent book by Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense.

In winter the sparrows still came to perch in the tree with their feathers fluffed out to keep warm.  

Then a kamikaze cowboy crashed a sidewalk snow plough into the tree, damaging the trunk so badly that the city had to cut it down.  

The following summer the city planted a mountain ash, and for the first few years, the tree was healthy. It bloomed white in the spring, followed by clusters of orange berries. The starlings and squirrels had a heyday. 

Then the tree became infested with tent caterpillars which we tried to control by cutting away the affected branches. The following year we saw dieback--dried brown leaves and leafless branches. I called the city to tell them the tree wasn't well. They sent an arborist whose report said there was no significant dieback. I would have liked to invite the arborist into my office for a clear view of the significantly dead crown of the tree. 

After two years of increasing dieback, the city cut the tree down. I came home one day to a stub of trunk. A few weeks later a machine must have been sent to grind the trunk and part of the root. I came home to mound of sawdust. 

For the rest of the summer we had no tree. The neighbours across the street had no trees either, because theirs had been cut down as well.  

A couple of weeks ago trees were left on the sidewalk with No Parking/Horticulture signs along the street. It looked promising! 

The next day the trees had disappeared. Were they stolen in the night? Had the city reconsidered planting trees? Did whoever delivered the trees put them on the wrong street? In Montreal there are always many possibilities. The workings of the city and its employees are not transparent.  

Last week I came home to a new tree on the sidewalk. The tag on it said it was a Malus Dreamweaver which sounds to me like a word for Nightmare. Malus means bad. However, I looked it up and discovered that Malus also means apple. As in Eve and the apple? 

A Malus Dreamweaver is a flowering crab apple that is described as columnar with nearly vertical branches. I would have thought the city might want to shade the sidewalk, though perhaps a narrow tree makes more sense with power/telephone/cable lines overhead. 

The new tree, the Apple Dreamweaver, is still a small tree. The sparrows aren't interested in it yet. I hope it flourishes as well as it can in a city where the drivers of sidewalk snow ploughs crash into trees. I will pick up the litter around it and water it and plant a few flowers next spring. 

I look forward to it growing to within view of my desk.     

Thank you to Joanne Carnegie for pointing out errors in an earlier version of this post. 

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