When you put a tree in the ground, you grow more than just a little greenery

To celebrate Canada's birthday, we're challenging every cottager in Canada to plant a native tree. #GrowItForward

Liann and the trees

This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Time is a funny thing. When I was a kid, anything that happened before I was born seemed to be from another century, in a category called The Past, which held not only world wars and former prime ministers, but also weird old hats from the ’50s in the cottage closets and obsolete items in the shed, such as the two-man crosscut saw, the corrugated glass wash board, and the rusted-out tobacco tins.

Certainly, the 1967 Centennial, about which the grown-ups sometimes reminisced, seemed unreachable—perhaps because it took place more than 10 years (imagine!) before I was born or perhaps because it was an event that itself looked back even further into the past.

Maybe that’s what gave the map such appeal. Growing up, we would occasionally pull out of a drawer in the dining room a hand-drawn map that showed our cottage and the clearing nearby. Like any good treasure map, it was a link to another place or time, in this case, that summer in ’67 when Canadians were encouraged to take on a Centennial project. My grandparents wanted to do something and decided that their project would entail, over that summer, planting 100 trees at the cottage. They recorded each tree that went in the ground on the map—sometimes with the name of the family member or cottage guest who had planted it, sometimes just with an X—and noted the tree species. Many of those people,including my grandparents, are no longer living, but in each case they have a tree that lives on, recalling the day that it was placed in its new home.

Unlike on a pirate’s map, however, where the prize is hidden, this treasure was one you could walk up to, sit under, chase your cousins around. Mostly white spruce, but also balsam fir, a couple of white pines, and one or two tamarack, these saplings were added to the forest, reclaiming a little bit of the clearing that was once upon a time a working field. Using the existing forest as a guide, my family chose trees that were native not only to the area, but to the property.

As a kid, I remember finding a good walking stick, loading up on bug spray, and going on long “hikes” with my grandparents, brother, and cousins. We’d go by all the essential landmarks: the Lookout, where you could check on the status of the beaver dam; the wetland, where we’d watch herons and frogs; and the Mountain, which was really just a small piece of exposed Shield, but boasted fascinating lichen and pools of rainwater to explore. Along the way, my grandmother would use her pruning shears to cut back branches that were encroaching on the trail, and she or my grandfather would point out the song of a veery or show us that the bunchberries were in flower, which they had not been just the week before.

I’m sure my recollection of this is overly romantic. I’m sure the bugs were bad, our short legs were tired, and that we gaggle of rubber-boot-wearing, hooting kids frightened away all but the most curious wildlife. But what I recall from this, really, is how my grandparents loved the place and, especially, the forest, and how much they wanted to share that love with us. I like to think that planting the trees for the Centennial was another expression of that love. That while they were celebrating the past they were also looking to the future and imagining their grandchildren walking the same forest with their children, pointing out the bunchberries and caring for the trees.

I don’t need to tell cottagers the value of trees. Most of us have a tree that forms a key piece of our cottage experience, be it part of our favourite view, a landmark on the drive, or one that we’ve spent hours under, summer after summer, watching life unfold in its branches. More than simply being beautiful—and simply beautiful they are—trees are understatedly useful: these long-term friends provide a weapon in the increasingly critical battle against climate change by storing carbon dioxide; they give shade for fish and the cool understorey; they make habitat for wildlife, clean the air and the water, and stabilize the soil—all the while giving you a place to hang your hammock.

New research in tree science has revolutionized our understanding of trees,and of forests. For instance, where it once seemed that trees were competing with each other for resources and light, findings such as those from forest scientists at UBC have shown that, thanks to avast and dense web of mycorrhizal connections, trees are also sharing nutrients—and not only between related members of the same species. Just as cottagers will loan a ladder or an egg to a neighbour in need, fir will share with birch, and birch with fir. Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water will flow in either direction through the spidery underground network that connects the trees, depending on which one has some to spare. Sure, they reach for the sun and try to sprint past their neighbours when the canopy opens up, but when bark beetles, say, or clear-cutting takes out too much of the forest, the trees that remain are vulnerable. Through centuries of toughing out fires, tornadoes, droughts,and pests, they have figured out that they are stronger together than apart.

There’s a saying that while the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today. Maybe your grandparents didn’t plant a tree at your cottage. Maybe they never stood on Canadian soil. But this year, for the country’s anniversary, Cottage Life is inviting every cottager to plant a native tree. We want to help create a legacy for future generations that shows them we care. That we care for the environment, for family, and for all Canadians, whether their ancestors were the first people on this land, or they themselves are the first generation here.

When in the company of trees I’m often reminded of the Ents, the powerful tree-like beings in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They’re a usually gentle, but sometimes crotchety bunch, who, because of their long lives, have a different sense of time. They make decisions slowly, with much reasoning and deliberation, and seem mystified by the rash action and scurrying around of the less rooted peoples around them. Canada’s non-fictional trees can live a very long time—some species for up to 2,000 years. There’s a subalpine larch in Kananaskis, Alta., that’s thought to be 1,943 years old and a Nootka cypress on Vancouver Island that’s 1,636. Ontario’s oldest living tree is an eastern white cedar on the Niagara Escarpment. It germinated in 688, making it almost 1,330 years old. And while the trees growing beside your cabin are probably not as old as those, it’s not unthinkable that they could live for 100, even 200 years. These slow-growing giants must surely take the long view. It’s a perspective we can borrow to slow down and to plan thoughtfully and with foresight to redefine the meaning of cottage time.

My uncle tells me that for the first year or two he would water the young trees once in a while, keeping an eye on them during those critical years. In the summers that followed, he went back and planted replacements for the two trees that didn’t survive. A forest is not just a destination to soothe your soul or where you can learn about the place you stand, it is a living process and a physical embodiment of hope for the future. All living things will grow and eventually die. In the meantime, we can try to leave something meaningful behind.

Senior editor Liann Bobechko earned more bug bites than dollars as a tree planter.

Find native tree sources for your cottage at Ontario’s greenleafchallenge.ca. Share your story on social media: #GrowItForward.

Read more about how Cottage Life is celebrating Canada 150 here.