Moments in a
Woodland Garden

K. Westhues Homepage





Kenneth Westhues

From Good Work News, fall 1994.

Ten thousand years ago, after the glaciers had receded, a forest arose in what is now the Westvale neighbourhood on the western edge of Waterloo, Ontario. Beech trees predominated, providing food for squirrels, racoons, passenger pigeons (whose diet was mainly beechnuts), as well as for human beings, though the latter were not numerous and considered these nuts too much trouble for too little meat.

In northern climates, beech trees do not usually reproduce by seed. A mature specimen sends up root suckers, which stay small until the parent crashes to the ground. This opens the forest canopy, sunlight pours in, the young trees grow up, and the cycle begins again.

Since a beech can live 200 years, the cycle had been repeated perhaps 50 times by 1839, the year a sucker sprouted from its parent near the crest of Westvale's highest hill. The little tree languished for a time in the understory shadows. Then came its day in the sun, and it reached for the sky.

As things turned out, the local environment changed more during this particular tree's lifetime than it had since the ice age. The reason was no natural upheaval or climatic shift, but an onslaught by humans of European origin, who came with skills of unbelievable complexity and power. These humans worked and multiplied. For every one of them in Waterloo Region in 1839, there were 200 in 1994.

Other species took this human invasion hard. Here as elsewhere, humans felled beech trees by the thousands, clearing land for crops of greater worth to humanity. Deprived of beechnuts, passenger pigeons went extinct. The last one died in 1914, in the Cincinnati zoo.

This particular beech in Westvale was lucky to be rooted in terrain too rough and steep for farming, so that nobody bothered to cut it down. Even after people transformed the valley of the Grand River into a skyline of high-rise concrete, this tree overlooked it all and kept on growing, one ring a year, in the manner of its ancestors. It was part of a small forest community, its neighbours being other beeches, maple, basswood, ash, and cherry trees. On ground made fertile by decaying leaves, trout lilies and jacks-in-the-pulpit thrived.

Clayton and Leona Peterson built their home in this forest in 1951. In due course they grew old and died (the cycle of life applies to the human species, too). In 1987, we moved in. I studied the big beech often from our bedroom window. Great horned owls nested in it in the spring of 1988. Three children from some suburban street—Lea, Brent, and Bettina were their names—came after school almost every day to stare up at the owlet staring back at them. They called its parents Mr. Owl and Mrs. Owl.

Two men named George were among the last humans to lay eyes upon the tree. One was George Masurkevitch, who teaches Grades 5 and 6 at Westvale Public School. Mr. Masurkevitch knows how to open children's eyes to the natural world, as I learned when he asked me to guide his classes on walks through the woods. He made the difference between beech and maple obvious, calling the former "elephant tree" (because it is big and gray and smooth) and the latter "ear tree" (on account of the curving fissures in its bark).

Mr. Masurkevitch sought to preserve the last bit of Westvale's forest for the people already living there, or maybe just for itself. The need to house still more human beings took precedence.There is money to be made from carving rugged hilltops into residential lots.

The developer gave the contract to George Bramley, co-owner with his wife, Charlene, of Town and Country Waste Disposal. Mr. Bramley is as good at his dangerous job as Mr. Masurkevitch is at his safer one, and he works just as hard, alongside the company's five employees. "I never ask any man to do something I wouldn't do myself," he says. Mr. Bramley learned a love of the woods in his native New Brunswick. He spared the big beech's cousin just to the east, even though it bore the ominous daub of scarlet paint. "It may survive even when the house is built," he told the landscaper. "Let's leave it be."

On July 15, 1994, human history caught up with the tree that began its life in 1839. A cable was run from high up the trunk to the Clark tree skidder, a huge, tractor-like machine controlled with pride and skill by a driver who could turn it on a loonie and stop it on a dime. Mr. Bramley put his chain saw to the base of the tree as the skidder pulled. The beech fell fast. In a single day, human beings put an end to a community of sylvan life that had flourished on that spot for 10,000 years.

I asked Mr. Masurkevitch why he attaches such importance to teaching kids about the environment. "Everything is interconnected," he answered. "What we do to one thing impacts on everything else, even when we do not understand exactly how or why." If people wept when the big beech went down, could you blame them?

— — — — —   Addendum. The beech tree's cousin, the one Mr. Bramley hoped would survive, in fact slowly died over the next ten years, as commonly happens to the scattered mature trees left standing in backyards when a woodlot is cleared for residential development. The tall dead tree threatened to fall on one of the homes near it, and so was cut down in July of 2006.