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November 15, 2018 November 15, 2018

More than just a tree

Posted on May 23, 2018 by Mark and Ben Cullen

The oldest tree in Toronto could be cut down. The 350-year-old red oak is located on a residential lot in Rexdale, within walking distance of Summerlea Park and the West Humber River. The same river that served as a primary transportation route for indigenous people and later European fur traders.
Imagine the stories this tree could tell.
If it is cut down it won’t tell any stories, even if it could.
The home owners on Coral Gable Drive harbour fears that the house may no longer be livable, as the tree grows, it “squeezes” the house and it’s foundation with branches and roots.
The property is on the market for about $750,000.
The city has said that it does not want to buy it. However, a final decision has been put off for a few weeks while discussion and study of the situation goes on.
For those of us interested in saving the tree, time is of the essence.
Some Torontonians, with a keen sense of history and appreciation for Toronto’s oldest tree, have challenged the City to meet them half way.
Edith George, a long-time advocate for heritage trees, is leading a coalition of private citizens to raise half of the value of the real estate, approximately at $325,000. We are supportive of her group.
In the first week of the campaign over $100,000 has been raised or pledged for this purpose.
What is the significance of this tree?
First, it was a rather mature 130 years old when Toronto, then York, was founded in 1793. Even then it would have towered over most of its tree-neighbours, sequestering carbon, cooling the atmosphere and producing oxygen as only a large tree can.
Secondly, it is not just the tree that is significant but what it represents. There is only one “oldest” tree in our city. When it is gone another tree will be deemed “the oldest.”
But it won’t be 350 years old and it may not be in a state of health that makes it worthy of saving, as this one is.
To a very large degree we need to save this tree because we can.
Third, the location and age of this tree has special significance to indigenous people.
It is considered sacred by many. More on that later.
We believe that this campaign should focus on the tree and its preservation.
The house should be gently removed, the soil around its roots remediated and the entire tree be given special attention by professionals in the business of arboriculture. It deserves nothing less.
We understand that the tree could live another 150 years or more, given proper care and attention.
During the war of 1812 the Americans thought it was a good idea to come to Canada to claim our country as their own. 35,000 Americans left home to fight, 5,000 British, Canadian and Indigenous people defended our border. Thomas Jefferson famously said that it would be, “a mere matter of marching.”
The result was a draw: the Americans left without a win and Canadians didn’t have to give up any real estate to them.
The story is well known and an important part of the history of our nation.
What is less well known is that without the help of our native people, specifically the people of the Six Nations, historians agree that we would most certainly be American today. We would have lost.
As we think about this it becomes obvious that all non-Indigenous Canadians owe another debt of thanks to our native brethren.
Our attention is drawn to Toronto’s oldest tree and the residential lot that surrounds it. What a fitting tribute to the efforts and sacrifice made by indigenous people on behalf of us all.
A giant of a tree that represents a city with a deep and rich story. A city with many stories that are buried and long forgotten.
We believe that today is the best day of all to remind ourselves of our history, to acknowledge past mistakes and to make good on the promise to “never forget.”
It is true, we have not always treated our heritage trees or indigenous people with the respect that they deserve.
But that is no reason to repeat past mistakes.
Ultimately it will be up to the people of Toronto to determine what happens to this hugely significant tree.
What kind of city do you want to live in?
What is the price of tearing down the historical elements that mark our time here?
How does our treatment of a 350 year old tree demonstrate our values? For better? Or for worse?
Politicians are servants of the people. Ultimately they will commit the city to whatever it is that they believe constituents want.
Now would be the ideal time to let them know what you think.
And to seriously consider making a donation through this important crowd-funding effort. (https://www.gofundme.com/toronto039s-350-yr-old-red-oak-tree)
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.

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