Island of Trees: Fifty Trees, Fifty Tales of Montreal, by Bronwyn Chester, Véhicule Press
April is the cruelest month. Except for the trees. Unencumbered by resentment or petulance at the past five months of minus 20, they pop out their little buds the moment the sun lingers for more than ten minutes. But trees cycle through life and death as if it were a roller coaster. Any minute now they’ll be racing past on their way to the lushest part of the year.
But it’s still a cruel, damned month. Making me think of lush trees and Bronwyn Chester, variegated trees and Bronwyn Chester, unique trees with unexpected stories and Bronwyn Chester. Trees and their patron, Bronwyn Chester.
Chester was a Montreal a freelance writer and editor. Her Spacing.ca column Tree Tuesday/Les mardi des arbres was a popular feature of the website, as were her tree tours around the city. In 2009 she parlayed this into a Montreal Gazette weekly column, Island of Trees.
Chester’s love for trees was both expansive and inclusive. “How many of us have stood in awe at the foot of some tree,” she asked. Well, I never had until I became a regular reader of her column. She was intriguingly intimate with the trees on Mount Royal, with the fruit trees hidden throughout the city, with the trees that shaded our cemeteries, the trees that populated McGill Campus, and the trees that brought life and character to our neighbourhoods.
Chester gave trees dignity and presence. “Decades ago, I met a tree I will never forget,” she writes in Dawn Redwood. In Balsam Fir she asks “What makes a fir a fir?” In her chapter on Apple trees it’s as if she personally remembered a time when the island was abundant in wild fruit. “The apple trees on Mount Royal are now sparse, but there was a time when our own Monteregian hill was rimmed in apples on all but the most rocky and northerly faces. In fact, the very first apple orchards in Quebec were planted by the Sulpician order in 1660 in the area where their seminary still stands at Atwater and Sherbrooke streets.”
“Before sending you out to explore, I’d like you to take a few minutes to consider the ‘regular’ trees, as a grade-four boy I once taught called those he saw in his schoolyard.” So begins the first chapter in this collection of Gazette columns where, in spite of the 400-word constraint, she packed equal parts information and drama.
“Forest fire… turns jack (pines) into a quick and nimble reproducer… But the tree is quickly the victim of its own success. Intolerant of the shade, the second generation following a forest fire can’t thrive in the shade of its parents. Other species, however, such as the shade-tolerant red pine, take advantage of the shelter provided by the small and scrappy jack. They live to replace their protector.”
I was a dedicated reader of Chester’s columns and in the fall of 2011 sought out her column to get information on her next walking tour. Never having heard to her talk about trees in person, I was determined to finally do so. The leaves were turning colour, an afternoon with Bronwyn Chester was going to be the perfect way to spend a day. But the column I found was her last: struck with cancer, she was stepping back to be with her family. She died in August the following year. The trees were green.
This collection, begun while she was still alive and completed after her death, was a labour of love for Bryan Demchinsky, her Gazette editor, and Simon Dardick at Véhicule Press. Full of maps and sketches, it captures perfectly that brief moment of time when Montreal’s trees had a patron, a friend, a protector.
“Finally, I land,” Chester writes in the book’s introduction, when its completion was still a possibility for her. “You land. We all land back on earth. Or, such is my hope.”
Leila Marshy is former Editor of Rover. She’s on a bread break with Madame PainPain.
IMAGE: Jean-Luc Trudel, Island of Trees