Thursday, July 15, 2010

Toronto's Oldest Tree

The oldest tree in Toronto (and a tiny person on a roof)
When John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant-Governor who founded Toronto, first sailed into our bay in 1793, what he found, of course, was an untamed wilderness. An ancient forest covered almost all of the area, right up to the shore of the lake in places, with enormous oaks and pines towering hundreds of feet into the air, lush canopies of maple and ash, streams and brooks and rivers filled with salmon and trout, plus deer and bears, wolves and foxes, bald eagles and flocks of passenger pigeons so thick that they blocked out the sun.

Simcoe picked out a spot on the shore for Fort York, laid out ten blocks of a new town, and ordered his men to begin the arduous task of clearing the trees and building a city in their place. The clear-cutting would continue decade after decade as vast stretches of open land were carved out of the wilderness. (The scale of it was enough to shock some people even in those days—nearly 150 years before the birth of environmentalism. After her arrival in Toronto in 1836, the outdoorsy wife of the Attorney-General complained, "A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated, annihilated by all and any means.") But that, of course, was just the beginning. Despite our "city within a park" slogan, Toronto's total canopy coverage today sits at just 17%. That, depressingly, is about the same as Los Angeles'—less than half of the 40% boasted by other unlikely American cities like Washington, Atlanta and Houston.

Still, amazingly, a few of those same ancient trees that stood in the lush forest of Simcoe's day have survived more than 200 years of Toronto. The oldest of them all is a giant Bur Oak. It stands in the backyard of a house in the Annex, more than 35 meters high with a trunk almost 6 meters around. It's somewhere between 350-400 years old, which means it had already been there for 150 years when Simcoe first arrived, and must have started growing right around the same time that Étienne Brûlé is said to have become the very first European to visit these parts alllllll the way back in 1615.

And that, my friends, is nothing. The oldest tree in Ontario—a White Cedar on the Niagara Escarpment—germinated in 688 AD. That makes it 1322 years old—only about 50 years younger than Islam.


Back in November, the Toronto Star published a profile of that Bur Oak, which I borrowed the photo from and you can read here. And back in 1923, they published an article by Ernest Hemingway, worrying about the effect car exhaust was having on Toronto's oaks in general. It's over here. Long before that, Simcoe's wife Elizabeth painted watercolours of the ancient forest, some of which you can find here and here and here. And, in a happy coincidence, NOW published an article about Toronto's trees today, including the city's current efforts to get the canopy coverage up to 30-40% by planting more than 100,000 trees a year. It's here.

This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793