Mayday (Prunus padus): a flowering deciduous tree in the rose family.

Mayday (Prunus padus): a flowering deciduous tree in the rose family. Natural range: the north-east corner of your childhood backyard. The mayday tree blooms every year in her namesake month, bursting with strings of white flowers that coat the lawn in a late-spring snow. Her slim grey branches push above the rhubarb, the strawberry patch slowly receding in the shade, the sway beneath the fence where the jackrabbits pass through.

You may not remember, but it is the mayday that taught you to climb. Remember the rule swiftly set by your mother and just as quickly ignored, to not rest your weight on any branch thinner than your wrists. Do not let this prevent you from scaling. See the child you were, seven years old, knees above nose, pulling yourself up into the lowest boughs of the mayday tree. October—she, the tree, newly bare of leaves. An early Saturday, a month into the second grade, the grass blue with frost. See now, the child of 12, just as many feet off the ground in the springtime. Petals tremble and wink as you scurry up the branches. As you grow, sit higher and higher up in the tree—where you will be untouchable, unreachable, unnoticed, but noticing. From here, look over the back lane with all its couples of garbage and recycling bins, and catch glimpses of the neighbours across the way with their lawn and their dog, both scrappy and yellowing.

In the summer, petals give way to bitter purple-black drupes that stain the sidewalk pavers. When you are feeling fiendish, rake strings of berries into the bottom of your shirt, careful not to break the thin dark skin, and perch up on your favourite branch. From here, drop berries onto the unsuspecting heads of your sisters in the garden below. You can feign innocence. You can blame the squirrels.

Or, after a fight with your parents, flee up into the mayday’s arms and refuse to come down until your anger has cooled. At 13, scribble the initials of your crush there in ballpoint pen, ten feet up, small in the crook where the trunk meets a branch. Find it years later, a little mar in the armpit of the bark, and laugh.

For almost 15 years, make marks on each other, you and this tree. For almost as many years, know that the tree is dying. Watch and understand as the swollen galls of black knot fungus colonize her, weighing down thin branches like hangman’s knots. Worry for your favourite footholds when your father periodically climbs with the big snips under his arm to clip away at the lower galls. The first spring you live away from home, an arborist will prune the infection away, thinning the canopy to an unkempt bundle of sticks. He will drill in screw-bolts and a cable to hold the tree together at the juncture where it is most likely to split. Imagine the trunk peeling apart like string cheese in a strong gust of wind. The trim and cable will be the arborist’s kindest option. He can make no promise the mayday will survive to see summer. You mother will cry when told so—but it’s the climbing tree! Later, she’ll laugh a little when she tells you this. Together you’ll wonder how often arborists have to dry the tears of sentimental tree lovers.

Watch as the tree blooms another year, another year yet.

Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides): a characteristic deciduous tree. Natural range: your hometown—the provincial park just down the block is loud with their trembling. To walk among the aspen, you must get used to being seen—it is a forest of eyes. The trees stand sentinel like pale ghosts, like white arms, their dark marks like eyes watching. These are scars from branches dropped. The trembling aspen self-prunes, getting rid of what no longer serves it, allowing light to pass through to its smaller siblings in the understory.

Think of it as a dead place, the forest muffled with snow. But always be a little in awe of that skeletal black canopy, how it held you up so long.

When you leave home, disenchanted, you won’t look fondly upon the aspen garden, the tallgrass prairie. You’ll say you hate this place now—a lot of young people do. When you’re young you want to run away from the places that know you because you don’t want to be known as you were. You want to be re-known, re-learned, and you think you can only do that in leaving. When you leave, you leave entirely on your own, to a place where no one knows you yet. Go west and choose a new name. For a while, only return home to the aspen garden in the winter. Think of it as a dead place, the forest muffled with snow. But always be a little in awe of that skeletal black canopy, how it held you up so long.

Aspen trees are seldom seen growing alone. The largest single living organism on earth is a clonal colony of P. tremuloides named Pando, who occupies 108 acres of land in central Utah, 1,700 kilometres from where you grew up. Each individual aspen tree in this range is in fact a clone of Pando—they are one genetically unique organism, connected beneath the soil, working and growing in community.

When you find yourself in a new city, a new ecosystem, confront your unknowingness of the land. You must learn again the names of the plants, the rhythm of the seasons. Teach yourself the local species and become acquainted with their habits and uses—a crucial part of moving forward. Maintain this habit—acknowledge your discomfort in your new surroundings. Let this feeling provide the contrast, and remember how at home you feel among the aspen.

Winter will be the only time you have to learn to love home again. Sometimes it takes stepping back to see the blue of the snow and the yellow of the sky. See a sundog so wide it dips below the horizon—a complete halo around the sun. Later, watch a coyote run through the snow, bottlebrush tail hung low, nose pointed high as she passes at a four-legged gallop, almost gleeful.

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta): A charismatic conifer with a range extending from dry montane forests to the subalpine. P. contorta can grow up to 50 metres tall. This growth pattern is to encourage air flow, to promote the sweep of wildfires. These trees are evolved to go up in flames—their tightly-knuckled cones open best in the heat of a fire. Fire suppression through the 20th century has blanketed the Rocky Mountains with old, unhealthy lodgepole forests.

One July, you’ll be walking down the southern side of Elbow Lake with someone you will, very shortly, very briefly, love. A love before you know yourself, a love you’ll struggle to fit into. The lake shore will be low, receding beyond the reeds from a near-rainless month. But in the forest, the earth is soft with pine straw, still fresh with moisture, awake and alive with the cry of whippoorwills. You’ll stop by a lodgepole pine gone rusty in distress from an invasion of mountain pine beetle, its needles falling in a red skirt at its roots. Your love will try to incite a game of 20-questions. Come on, ask something juicy, they say. Like, what’s the tallest tree I’ve ever cut down to impress a girl? You laugh, what’s the tallest tree you’ve ever cut down to impress a girl? They start towards the nearest pine—Give me a few minutes and we’ll see. For a while the pair of you sit by the lake shore, watching for minnows and for the stilling water to reveal a perfect reflection of the trees on the bank, reaching out in both directions, a cathedral.

Years later, you’ll come upon wood chopping incidentally, in your first season working at the summer camp you attended yearly since you were six years old. It’ll go like this—you’ll have nightly campfires to light, and there will be wood to chop. At first, you’ll be clumsy. No one will teach you how to hold a hatchet, how to stand, or how to swing.

This is a new love for trees, a different kind of appreciation for them that in a way brings you closer to them.

Arc a hatchet clear above your head and let gravity carry the steel down, sliding your top hand down the handle as it falls. Watch as two sappy halves of pine wood ricochet cleanly apart. Stuff a bunch of quartered logs into the chopping block—a battered old stump with a black tire bolted on top—and start hacking, the close-nestled wood preventing kindling from flying out at you. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have split a full face-cord. The muscles in your arms will grow tough like roots, and you’ll enjoy the pleasant tightness of them when you crawl into your sleeping bag at the end of the day. It is relaxing, the rhythmic lift and fall of the blade, the bass thunk of steel into wood. The satisfaction of splitting with a single swing. You will fill much of your time-off this way, restocking the wood bin with neat piles of kindling to fuel nightly fires. This is a new love for trees, a different kind of appreciation for them that in a way brings you closer to them.

A knot in a round of spruce wood gives you some difficulty, makes you try from a different angle. An iridescent purple beetle crawls out from a tunnel eaten into soft white wood, its sleep disturbed by the hack of the hatchet, a rude introduction of old pitted steel. Sometimes, when your attention slips, splinters embroider into your skin. Your body works them out on its own time.

About the author

Kaye Miller grew up on Treaty 7 land. They love dinner parties, giving book recommendations, and collecting beach glass. Their fiction can be found in Plenitude, Grain, Existere, Vagabond City Lit, and elsewhere. They are an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph.