Witness trees

Hunting for Frogs on Elston: And Other Tales from Field and Street is a collection of the best of Jerry Sullivan’s Field & Street columns, which were originally published in the Chicago Reader. The essays are short and touch on a range of topics, including prairie restoration, the changing seasons, birding, and the people who have contributed to our understanding of Chicago’s nature. But one of the essays in particular has stayed with me. Indeed, it is one phrase in that one essay that I keep repeating in my head. That phrase is: witness trees.

The essay is titled Surveying Illinois: How Humans Shaped the Landscape. It is about the U.S. government’s survey reports of Illinois, carried out between 1820-1840, and what they reveal about the region’s ecology. To compile these survey reports, the surveyors dissected the land into six-mile-square townships and one-mile-square sections. Each section corner and half-mile point was located using a “witness tree”, which was marked with a blaze and described in the surveyors’ notes. From these witness trees – or lack of, if there were no trees nearby a pile of charcoal was used instead – a picture of the landscape can be extrapolated.

I immediately fell in love with the idea of a witness tree, not just as a surveyors’ tool, but also as a way of mapping a place, or a life. What, I began to wonder, would the map of my life’s witness trees look like?

It would begin, of course, with the cherry blossom tree that stood, and still stands, at the end of the street I grew up on. In spring it bloomed pink petals that showered the ground, and in autumn the leaves turned a deep purple. As a kid I cared more about it’s climbing properties than its aesthetics. Happily, it was a great tree to climb. It had low branches, low enough for a child to reach. And it had crooks and branches big enough for a child to sit in. I loved getting my friends to climb up into the tree and I remember taunting kids down on the pavement: I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.

Recently my friend, Ebony, who moved back to the area, sent a photo of the tree. She called it our tree and suddenly I saw it in a whole new light. I’ve lost touch with most of the kids I knew growing up, but Ebony and I are still best friends. The cherry blossom tree was, and still is, a witness to that friendship.

Remember our tree?

On that same street, my brother planted a horse chestnut conker in our back garden. The tree took root and grew, but it had been planted too close to the house, and our parents decided it needed to be moved. I have a hazy memory of the day we moved the tree. It was moved to a youth centre where my stepdad was working at the time and I remember my stepdad replanting the sapling in its new home. I also remember feeling awed by the idea that the sapling would one day be as big as, if not bigger than, the trees then towering over it.

When I started writing about my brother’s tree, my memory was so hazy that I had to ask my family about it. I didn’t even know what kind if tree it was. My stepdad thought it might have been an oak or a sequoia! My mum and brother both agreed it was a conker tree. That made sense because my brother always loved collecting conkers in the autumn and hardening them in vinegar for conker fights. My brother told me he’d been back not long ago to see the tree. He’d found the youth centre and the building was still there, but he couldn’t figure out which tree, if any, was his. It was only part of our lives for a short time, but it’s still the only tree I’ve ever helped move home (though I’m not sure how much help I was!).

We moved house when I was 11, to a bigger house with a bigger garden – and more trees. The front garden had a birch tree in it and an evergreen, which was eventually cut down to let more light into the house. In the back garden there was a large, old tree in the corner, which my mum recalls as being a sycamore. It was half in our garden and half in the neighbour’s. When they wanted to put up a fence, the tree became a source of conflict, with the battle fought through letters. The tree was protected and my parents didn’t want the neighbours damaging it. In the end, I came home from school one day to find a fence at the end of our garden, with a gap between the concrete post and the tree.

In some ways it feels like a symbol for that house. In the end my parents marriage fell apart and it never felt like home to me. It wasn’t a happy place. And all the while, the tree that seemed ancient to me, stood by, watching.

I moved to Amsterdam in November 2013. Because it was winter most of the trees had already lost their leaves. For those first few months, until spring arrived, I didn’t think of Amsterdam as a green city. Mostly I thought of it as wet and grey. But when spring did eventually unfurl, the city’s trees came to life. The buds on the branches of the tree outside our apartment started to grow. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to that tree for the four years we lived in that same apartment. I didn’t even take note of what species it was. It was thinly branched, especially on the side facing our building, and it didn’t have a particularly impressive crown when in full leaf. The only time I paid it any heed was if an interesting bird landed in it, like the time I spotted a treecreeper clinging to its trunk. Or, if it was windy out, I would worried about it blowing over and into our house. It didn’t blow over. It stood there, strong and tall, throughout those four years.

The only photo I have of the tree outside our Amsterdam apartment!

I don’t think of my life as having been changed much by Amsterdam. I lived there for a significant chunk of my life, but it was always a holding place, never the place I dreamed of living and putting down roots. But now that I’ve left I feel the tug of those taproots that grew unexpectedly – favourite spots, people, the way the light caught me on certain days, and yes, even that tiny apartment that was always cold and never big enough for two people. And I miss our tree, it’s steadfastness and predictability. I wonder what lives it is paying witness to now.

When we moved to Canada this summer we didn’t have much time to find a place to live. In the end we settled in Unionville because it was convenient for my husband’s work and it has a small, walkable centre. But it was also the trees that drew me. All the houses have large, old trees growing on their property. Even where older houses are being torn down, to be replaced by hideous McMansions, local laws mean that the trees have to stay.

The house that we eventually moved into has a number of trees around it, including a large tree (I haven’t yet been able to identify what kind of tree it is – Google and a copy of Trees of Ontario haven’t helped much) that casts the driveway and front lawn almost completely in shadow. When we first visited the house I immediately fell in love with that tree and I still love seeing it as we drive up our road.

The other tree I’ve grown to love is one that stands just next to the house, in the back garden (again, sorry for my lack of IDing skills!). It’s branches reach up to my office window and all through our first hot summer here, I sat at my desk with the windows wide open and the tree filtering light into the room. The tree is also visible from my chair in the lounge and we hung a bird feeder in a low branch. In the morning I would be distracted from my book by the flight and chatter of birds in the feeder (it didn’t last long though due to the raccoons trying to get their share – you can read more about that in my Zoomorphic essay). This spring we got to witness the tree in bloom. When we went away for the Easter weekend, we returned to find that all the blossoms had fallen and our lawn was completely pink.

A witness tree, and glimpses of suburbia

These are my witness trees. They have been part of my life in the different places I have lived. They have paid witness to my life.

In his essay, Sullivan writes that the witness trees of Illinois not only show us something about the ecology of the region before it was settled by Europeans, they also tell us something about the people who were already living there. Robbin Moran created a map of the vegetation of Lake County, Illinois, using  surveyors’ reports:

The map strongly supports the idea of a landscape shaped by fire, with the fire-resistant oaks dominating the wooded lands and the fire-sensitive cherries and basswoods confined to areas where the topography provided fire protection.

Those witness trees pay witness to a different version of history from the one Sullivan learned in school:

We were given a vision of darkness illuminated briefly and intermittently by the writings of Marquette and Joliet, La Salle, and an assortment of other French, English, and American visitors who gave us glimpses of what was here between 1673 and about 1800. Real history began with Fort Dearborn and ended in massacre.

After the 1830s, the landscape was altered so quickly that there were no memories of the landscape to keep alive. Those who might have remembered, the Native Americans, were taken to reservations in other parts of the country, an act Sullivan compares to ‘burning down a library’. The result is that when Sullivan was writing, many people had a fixed idea of what the natural landscape should look like that had no basis in the history of the land. When plans were proposed to restore savannas to forests people asked why restorationists were so concerned with oaks – a question Sullivan likens to asking why Californians care so much about redwoods. The witness trees can tell restorationists and nature lovers the real story about the land and help to redress some of the ignorance about a place’s history.

On a much smaller scale, my witness trees tell a story about my life, a map of the different places I’ve lived. They are solitary trees, urban trees, growing alone on small patches of land or in gardens. I wonder what your witness trees say about your life?

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