When I was writing Mnemonic: A Book of Trees—it was published in 2011 so this was perhaps 2009?—I had a conversation with a range ecologist on Vancouver Island with a particular interest in Garry oak habitat. He sent me a map showing the historical range of those iconic oaks on lower Vancouver Island as well as the contemporary range and the difference was startling. The ecosystem of these trees is a complex community of plants, animals, and insects. Saving a tree alone doesn’t necessarily result in its survival. The ecologist recommended to me that I try growing some Garry oaks myself if I thought my land would be congenial for them because extending their range might also assist their survival. Maybe 5 years ago on a walk around Rithet’s Bog in Victoria, I collected 6 acorns and brought them home. I planted them in the fall and that spring I was delighted to see that one of them had sprouted. Now each spring I’m so happy to see my little tree grow a few inches taller and I love watching the new leaves unfurl.
My Garry oak is ready to plant out. I have in mind a mossy bluff to the south of our house—you can see it in the background of the photograph of the oak in its pot—with an arbutus, Douglas firs beyond, lots of wildflowers (though not camas; I think I’ll try introducing some of those if I can. I know they grow elsewhere on the Coast here and there are also chocolate lilies on one of the small islands in Ruby Lake near us), and snakes, northern alligator lizards, and many species of moss and lichens.
The thing is, I have three other small white oaks to plant too. (Well, one is planted but not in a good place.) They’re little trees I found growing on the side of the trail to Sakinaw Lake. They’re not native oaks. Someone on the lake has an oak, I know, because I’ve seen the leaves on the trail in fall, blown from one of the properties of people who are here only in summer. These tiny oaks were probably the result of acorns buried by squirrels or jays. The edge of the trail is thick with bramble, salal, and other rampant growers. I brought the seedlings home because I knew they’d be smothered in a season or two. I don’t know what species they are apart from the fact that I believe they’re white oaks—their lobes are rounded at the tips rather than pointed, as with red oaks—and their new growth is beautiful.
It’s late in my life to plant oak trees. I’m 65, John is 72, and we’re living in a world fraught with danger. I’d planned to gather a few more Garry oak acorns in the fall on Vancouver Island but will we be allowed to travel? Will I want to? Home feels so much less perilous than the world beyond our property line and although I go out one day a week to buy groceries, I find myself limited in what I do because I just want to get the shopping over with so I can go home.
But I have 4 grandchildren. And if you’ve been keeping track, I have 4 tiny oaks. Is it stretching credulity to say that I want these children to have an oak grove to sit within if the world survives what we’ve done to it. If we survive as a species. When I look out at the sweet mossy bluff green-gold with new growth and sunlight, I can dream them onto its soft slope, the oaks and the children, perhaps finding an acorn in the moss and thinking that it’s something they could plant. Like W.S. Merwin, I want to think of the trees surviving. (“On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree”) The children too. By then there might be drifts of blue camas and fawn lilies by the rocks, there might be a sky clearer than any we could imagine, and the deer stepping into the forest with her young ones, gods returned to us because we needed them.
4 thoughts on ““On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree””
Ah, beautiful! Have been following you.
Susan, these are such strange times and to imagine a future with oak trees and children….well, it sustains me.
Your last lines brought tears to my eyes. Have been planting today in the metropolis – very different from your experience, but still, hands in the soil, creating something beautiful perhaps to leave behind. And if not, to enjoy now.
I don’t think the experience is so different, Beth. We plant for the future and for hope and for love. (Thanks for reading!)