He was a career gardener with the City of Toronto. Our uncle Tom Cullen was a one of a kind. For five years, we shot a TV show with CBC in his two acres backyard garden. Often, when there was a discussion on camera, he could be seen in the background pushing a wheelbarrow full of compost from one side of the set to the other. Loping along in his black work boots.
Uncle Tom managed his compost as many would care for their car or pet: he nurtured it in the extreme. It was no pile of waste, rotting in the corner of the garden, but a hole that he dug about seven metres wide and over a metre deep.
It was a compost-crater into which he metred chopped up yard waste, kitchen scraps, horse manure and grass clippings.
If it is possible to “lovingly” turn compost, he would be the one to do it.
Late Uncle Tom said very little, but when we watched him and asked him questions, it was amazing what we could learn.
Uncle Tom was a veteran of the Second World War. Typical of many vets, he didn’t like to talk about his experience very much. But one day, he pointed an aged index finger downwards, towards his shiny black boots and exclaimed, “These feet saved my life!” At the age of 92 he was ready to share this story.
In 1940, Lawrence (Tom) Cullen volunteered for military service on the same day as all his buddies from Northern Tech Collegiate in Toronto. Early in the process they were lined up in the old Coliseum building on the Exhibition Grounds.
Naked, but for their underwear, they stood in line. A man in uniform gave them the once over, while they waited for their physical by the resident doctor.
“You, out of the line!” the man in uniform barked at Tom. “We can’t send you to Europe with flat feet!”
He was sent instead to CFB Petawawa to guard prisoners of war and maintain the gardens.
That would be the end of the story except for this:
On Aug. 20, 1942, young Tom picked up a newspaper, which featured a headline about the disastrous battle for Dieppe on the coast of France the day before. “There in the paper was a list of casualties — many of them my buddies that I signed up with.”
The 75th anniversary of the raid on Dieppe recently passed and the 100th anniversary of the battle for Passchendaele during World War One, and Hill 70. We have many more milestones of similar ilk before us.
As each anniversary passes, many Canadians will take the opportunity to pause. To take stock of the freedom that we have and the enormous price that was paid for it. We will reflect, just as many Canadians reflected on Highway 401 between CFB Trenton and the coroner’s office in Toronto each time a Canadian was flown home to be repatriated during the Afghan conflict. 159 times we stood by the Highway of Heroes to say thank you and goodbye.
A Living Tribute
This coming week, marks the second anniversary of the campaign to reforest the Highway of Heroes — the “Living Tribute.” Since our beginning, private Canadian donors have given over $1.3 million. Not bad for a grassroots campaign that started with some concerned citizens speaking up for our lack of trees in the urban environment (and the hostile environment of the continent’s busiest highway).
We are planting two million trees on the right-of-way and the corridor flanking either side of the highway. Each tree represents a Canadian lost in war. Plus, a tree for each who volunteered for military service during times of war. In 150 years we have seen too many wars and lost far too many, mostly young, Canadians.
We need more trees. Consider what a tree gives back over its life time: oxygen, toxins are filtered out of rain water, traffic slows in their presence, tourism picks up, roads are cooled and air is cleaned. In return they ask what? Some soil to grow in, water to nourish them and a little pruning from time to time.
Come to think of it, the men and women who fought for our freedom asked very little in return for their sacrifice, no? Our trees and the heroes we acknowledge on the Highway of Heroes have this in common.
On Nov. 3, Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell will help us plant a ceremonial tree in Scarborough, right next to the Highway of Heroes. Consider joining us and if you are unable to do that, would you consider donating? The goal for this campaign is $10 million by 2020.
When I think about the 117,000 Canadians who died during times of war, I gaze downwards, towards my feet and I think about my Uncle Tom, who, during times like these must have been filled with questions and a deep sense of gratitude to his school friends, lost at war 75 years ago. Details at http://www.hohtribute.ca.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.