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. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

lessons in discordance / when i lived in toronto 1980s

A friend was telling me how necessary it was for her to listen to music just now. I was reminded of a time when music felt like it was my lifeline. 

I was living in Toronto in the 80s. I'd left the boyfriend I'd been living with for two years. I sat in grad student seminars but nothing anyone said made sense. Why was I there? Why get a PhD? My life felt upside-down and I wasn't sure how to go on. 

When I told my thesis supervisor that I was leaving the program, I mentioned that I didn't have anywhere to live. He offered to let me flat-sit while he went away for a couple of months. There's some subtext here about sexual advances. You might think that should be the headline, but in those years it wasn't. I later discovered the professor had a harem of grad students. I was too dense to understand his overtures. I assumed he needed someone to water his plants and forward his mail, which I could do.

For a summer I lived in his large apartment with corner windows that looked onto trees. I drank black coffee and ate green apples. I got a job in a restaurant on Queen St making desserts, but I only did it for a few hours a week. Enough to buy coffee and apples. In the middle of the night my ex-boyfriend would call to tell me he was masturbating. I think I hung up. I hope I hung up.  

I didn't know how to get my life back on track again. Was it ever on track? Up until then, I'd stayed in school beause it was easiest.  

I spent long hours reading the books on the professor's shelves. Reading was good but it wasn't helping. I longed for music. There was no stereo in the apartment and I didn't have the money to buy one. I had remembered to take my vinyl records and cassette tapes when I left the ex-boyfriend, because when I'd left a previous ex, who'd said I could return for my belongings, he changed his mind and wouldn't let me in the door. I later saw the things he wouldn't let me have at a friend's place. When I pointed out that a recipe book on her kitchen counter was mine, she said, Oh, we're having sex, I hope you don't mind. I didn't mind about the sex. I did mind about my recipe books and cake tins.    

I'm older now. I don't know how much I've changed. I don't know that people change essentially, but I believe we can aquire new habits and ways of thinking. An example: I no longer listen to the music that I yearned so deeply to hear in those years. What would it be called? Experimental jazz? Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Palle Danielsson. When I hear it now, it jangles my nerves.  

But that discordance was exactly what I craved when other people were listening to Prince and Linda Ronstadt and AC/DC.  

So how did this happen? My father, who never drove to Toronto, showed up at the professor's apartment with a brand-new stereo and turntable. Gifts for no reason was not something that happened in my family. I don't know how he knew. I never talked to him on the phone. It's possible I told my mother that I had no way of listening to music. Or maybe my sister told him. She was more attuned to the possibility that I was depressed than I was.  

For the rest of the summer, between books and making desserts on Queen St, I lay on the sofa, looking out the windows at the trees, listening very hard to how Garbarek sound-wove the shrieks and meandering of his tenor sax into a whole of sorts. It helped me feel I could take the discordance in my own head and move forward. 

The photo from above was taken some years later. There are none of me from that earlier time.  

Monday, October 11, 2021

autumn walking / environmental art

 What do you think this is?

1) environmental paper art

2) a mess of leaves stuck together

3) a destroyed wasps' nest

4) a disintegrating Italian Renaissance coif that got snagged in a Montreal tree? 


4) Seems unlikely given the 500 years since the Italian Renaissance and that this was a young tree in Montreal, but you can see the similarity, yes?

2) A mess of leaves would be a bad choice, since there is clearly design and structure here, even if it's been destroyed.

The answer is 1) and 3). 

3) A destroyed wasps' nest, because that's what it is. 

1) I would argue that it's art too, because it shows me the world in a new way. I marvel at how the wasps collected leaves and chewed them to make paper that they then shaped to make a nest. I can appreciate this, even though I don't want to be stung by wasps. 

The nest was destroyed, and then time and weather worked their effect. The texture is like paper with too little cellulose to bind it. It crumbles when I touch it, yet it was a serviceable home for 20-30 adult wasps. Of course, home-building was their intention. But I behold it as art. My response is aesthetic. I love the delicate texture.

Though I have to admit that my mind still leaps to seeing it as an Italian Renaissance coif.