i’ve come here early

I’ve come here early to collect my thoughts before the group arrives.

I’m sitting on a concrete barrier, the sort the city puts to block cars from entering a street or parkland. That’s the case here, a railway yard abandoned roughly 30 years ago. You can still see the railway ties though the rails are long gone — metal being more valued than wood. Over there, closer to the Canadian Pacific line, is an of island of trees. And I’m not speaking figuratively. In the midst of this flat meadow of clover and cinquefoil, chicory and wild carrot, there’s a decaying hulk of wood — an old loading dock left over from the days when the train cars loaded up on textiles, a major industry in Montreal until the 1970s. You can see the thin spread of a Siberian elm, the droop of a Manitoba maple and, of course, a poplar or two, waving giddily to some ghostly train come to pick them up.

Luckily, trees are patient — and resilient. How many saplings in this field — stretching four city blocks — have been cut and hacked by the Canadian Pacific mower, only to come back tough and crooked? Seeds too are patient. How many have waited here during the years of life of the trainyard, waiting for their moment — a pause in industrial activity, in order for the toughest of the species to emerge from the oil-soaked soil, fortified by the sunlight, only to stretch their roots, create channels in the hard-packed soil, push out their flowers, harden their seeds, and scatter them to fate. 200 species, all doing the same, each in its own time. I’m impressed by the staying power of seeds. Do they ever die?

But what most impresses me about this industrial wasteland-now-meadow are the walnut trees. How did such a noble tree end up in this field of hobos? Normally found further South, the walnut needs more shelter and richer soil than you find in an abandoned railway yard. Yet there they are, at least five of them, one of them old enough to bear fruit, making it at least fourteen years of age. When I first spied them, it was obvious to me that the squirrels had brought walnuts over the four metres wall of the Carmelite Monastery, just across the street. The Carmelites are a cloistered, contemplative order that came to Quebec from France in the late nineteenth century. They were given land that had been a rock quarry and behind their medieval-stye monastery, they established a walled garden that, in its heyday, housed three vegetable gardens, orchards of apple, pear, and plum trees and sprawling black walnut. While you can’t see the orchards, the walnut, growing close to and out over the wall, is unmistakable: thousands of lance-shaped leaflets attached to the black and curving branches of this century-old tree are one of the city’s oldest.

What I didn’t know, though, was the location of those walnuts that had left the fold. The oldest, the one bearing fruit, is directly across the street from the monastery wall, bordering Henri-Julien street. Most of the others, however, are clustered on the other side of the field, at the end of the chain-link fence, the remnant of an ancient property boundary that runs along the South end of the field for a 100 metres, or so, takes a break, then runs north a 100 metres more. Where the fence ends, the cluster of walnuts begins. Must be that these spots held the richest soil, I had guessed.

But this morning, sitting here on this cement block, the answer runs by me — on four legs. It’s last summer and there’s still a large opening in the monastery wall where the stones are being remortared. A squirrel dashes out and across the street a lime-green fruit in its mouth, larger than its head. Aha, I think. A walnut. Now, what?

I approach the squirrel quietly but she pays no notice to me. On the sidewalk, across from the wall, we make eye contact and I try to communicate my wish that she drop the walnut so I may show it during my guided tour of the meadow trees. Not understanding, she hops into a young Manitoba maple and wedges the clementine-sized walnut into a fork of the tree.

Fantastic, I think, making a mental note of the tree’s location. I’ll bring the group here to see, touch, and smell the walnut. I return to my block and review my program notes. Again, a small shape pulls at the periphery of my vision. The squirrel. This time with another walnut. This time, she leaps along the fence, past the silver maples, young poplars, and choke cherries. At the end of the fence, she leaps down, and in seconds is on the northbound section, never missing a beat. I watch her motion, a small grey figure, led by a bright green ball, until I lose sight of her behind the enormous poplar that stands in the middle of the field.

Thank you, furry one, for this revelation. Of course: squirrels stick to trees, high wires, and fencetops because the ground represents danger. Lots of dogs use this park, and running through grass can’t be easy on four short legs. Where the fence ends is where this nutkin buries her walnut. And it so happens that the conditions are ripe for germination: rich enough soil, enough water and, perhaps, a little shelter from the wind, provided by the curving brick wall, near the fence. Another thing: when the germinated nut becomes a seedling, small and easily trampled or cut down by the mower, its proximity to the fence gives it protection. What protects the squirrel also protects the young tree. The system is working.

I’m thrilled by all I have learned by sitting still in this meadow, watching, sensing. Later that morning, as I introduce the meadow trees to the walkers, I share this story. At the end of the circuit, having met the Siberian pea tree, a species introduced to the Canadian prairies to curb wind erosion, likely brought in from a train from out west. We touch the fuzzy fruit of the sumac that has most likely been seeded by a bird, same for the choke cherries that grow in great numbers on the edge of this meadow; we press the buds from the balsam poplar, growing by the tracks, to smell the balsam in its name; we bite into a full-sized apple, perhaps a cousin of one of the Carmelite apples; we come to the scrawny Manitoba maple and I look for that walnut left by the squirrel. It’s gone. She came back for it.

Just then, I caught sight of a squirrel running through the abandoned parking lot, behind the southern line of the fence: mouth wide open, holding a walnut. We surmise. This tree is just a holding place for nuts. We cast around in case the nut fell to the ground. In the process, we find walnuts growing on a small tree. Funny, I think, that such a small tree is producing fruit. But the size of the trunk tells the true story. This is a well-established tree that’s had its top lopped off.

I’m moved by the thought that these walnuts too will be planted in this meadow and along the tracks, all thanks to the local grey squirrels. Twenty years from now, there will be fine, nut-bearing trees, offering lots of food and space for the squirrels as they bear and shelter their young. But only if this meadow is allowed to evolve.

Bronwyn Chester is a writer and translator and sole employee of Les Promenades dans la Forêt Montréal. She also writes the weekly column — Tree Tuesday/Le mardi des arbresSpacing Montreal.

Bronwyn Chester

Bronwyn Chester is a Montreal-based writer and interpretor of the urban forest. She writes a weekly column in the Sunday Gazette, entitled Island of Trees, and is the founder of Les promenades dans la Forêt Montréal, an organization that creates guided tree walks. From September 2008, she was also the author of the spacingmontreal.ca column Tree Tuesday/Le mardi des arbres.

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