The death of a climbing tree

Westmount park willow downed
I came home from a weekend of camping to learn that Westmount Park willow had fallen. It was a heavy storm last Tuesday that finally bent the old tree to the breaking point, but by that time its trunk was already stooped nearly to the ground and its bark had been polished by thousands upon thousands of sneakers.

When I was a small that willow felt like a kingdom of possibilities hanging high above the ground. Later, as teenagers, we straddled the branches and let our legs swing down lazily while we exchanged gossip or plotted pranks.

By that time, the Westmount Park willow had undergone a number of life-saving interventions: its swooping branches were propped up with metal braces, its hollow trunk was patched with concrete. It was hard to ignore the fact that we – among thousands of other tree-climbers – were driving that beloved willow into the ground, but who could resist the invitation of those low-slung branches?

We loved that tree to death, didn’t we?
Westmount Park Willow

I recently learned that climbing trees is illegal in Montreal – at least trees that are planted by the city (it’s in the cleanliess act along with the ban on postering).  I am outraged by this rule, but I am resigned to it. Within the city we are so many many people that any patch of nature we preserve is bound to cave under our collective weight.

This summer I spoke with some educators from Les Amis de la Montagne about the degradation caused by the millions of visitors who romp through Mount Royal’s fragile habitats seeking a tiny corner of wildness, a breath of mountain-top freedom. Much of thier mandate has to do with educating visitors to keep to the paths, curbing destructive mountain-biking practices and preventing people from lighting fires.

I love this city – I have written it dozens of times on the blog – but some sacrifices seem almost unbearable: That children should not test their strength and courage in the tree-tops, that teenagers should grow up without the kiss of bonfire flames, that we must not stray from the paths to chase butterflies and inspiration through the forest. That we grow up in the city wondering what we may do before we ever contemplate what we can do.

But what is the solution? Do we surrender that little semblance of freedom? Or do we do what Westmount Park has done all these years and sacrifice the beloved tree, patching it up season after season while its roots and branches wore away under our feet?


  1. Ah, c’est triste. Je l’appelais «l’arbre Salvador Dali»…

    I recently learned that climbing trees is illegal in Montreal – at least trees that are planted by the city

    Westmount n’est pas à Montréal.

  2. Do what my family did when I was a kid and take the whole troupe to the country and let them run amok for a few weeks every year so they can have total “freedom to explore”. I’d much rather bring my kids to the country every few months and let them go wild than sacrifice the occasional yet highly precious tree. This city needs every tree it can get.

    I only say that because I have caught both children and adults tear 3 to 20 year old trees out from the root on mount royal just so they have brush to burn in their camp fires. I’m alright with the camp fires, but killing trees when there is so much dead brush around really makes me want to smack them upside the head.

    Since when is childhood exploration synonymous with destruction of our natural habitat? Dunno bout you guys, but I was raised better than that. I would no sooner kill a tree in the spirit of exploration than beat up a puppy just to see what it feels like.

  3. I imagine the tree-climbing rule has more to do with insurance than with concern for the state of the tree.

    We tend to forget how small and fragile Mount Royal is. I don’t want people starting fires up there, or wantonly damaging it. Maybe we need to have express buses to other parks: Cap St-Jacques is a bigger park and quite nice (no mountain, but lots of water) but it’s way the hell out west; Pointe-aux-Prairies is as big a park, but way the hell out east. 

  4. wildness? On Mont Royal? where everything you see was planted by a person? Not quite “wild” in any definition I can find.

    For wildness, try the provincial parks, where the rule of law is much stronger than in city parks and certain recreation activities that might interfere with wildness are prohibited from the get-go. The only real (not northern boreal) wildness for 100s miles is the restricted-access muir forest and protected area of Mont St-Hilaire.

  5. Niomi, there is a vast difference between climbing a tree and uprooting it for firewood. Your penchant for hyperbole knows no bounds.

  6. Ah yes,  Les Amis de la Montagne: dedicated to the preservation of scrub brush, weed trees and rag weed in Mount Royal Park.

    Olmsted rolleth over.

  7. Glorious Trees Unite: I’d rather have a penchant for hyperbole than make unnecessary personal attacks and insult people just for the hell of it. Why not attack Daniel for posting a website of a young girl dying of hypothermia and gangrene, as if the life of a tree is somehow less important than human life? If it weren’t for plants and trees, there would be no humans. We are equally important.

    Mode: well said.

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