In front of our house grows a tree unlike any other we’re aware of. It is a Sugar Maple and it is a behemoth compared to its peers. The tree grows alongside Highway #53 and is witness to over 200 years of local history. I like to imagine the history of this tree, “our tree” I call it. I imagine the tree as a silent sentinel; one that calls to mind those who passed this way before.
I imagine our tree beginning as a feeble seedling struggling to put down roots in the shady forest floor a hands-throw away from the Old Detroit Road. Through its first years it only produces a handful of leaves while waiting for the one-in-a-million chance that a giant, towering above it, will topple. And then it really happens; but not at the hand of wind, ice or old age, but by the thwack of axes.
Recognizing the Old Detroit Road’s military importance, the government of Upper Canada soon upgrade it to a corduroy road; an improvement requiring copious amounts of trees. Soon giants fall in the forest around our struggling seedling. With the sunlight and rain pouring in upon it, our seedling quickly spreads it roots and branches and races to fill the gap. The War of 1812 begins and our tree is witness to British and American forces moving along the road. But all of this is unknown to the tree and it does what it is designed to do; it reaches for the light and grows.
Traffic increases along the road following the war and now stagecoaches, freight wagons and private carriages pass by our tree. But the bone-jarring rides along the corduroy surface precipitate improvements. Our tree is once again passed over in preference for the pines that become planks for the improved roadway, known now as the Stone Road. This new road permits quicker settlement to the area and behind our tree a family establishes itself. In quick succession, our tree’s neighbours all but vanish as the family clears the land and begins to farm. With minimal competition our tree enjoys the power of the sunlight that fuels its growth.
Traffic passing our tree continues to increase and again the roadway requires improvement. If it were aware, our tree could watch the workers pulling up the planks, raking gravel and flattening the roadway. The smoother surface allows farmers to take their produce to markets and now a variety of carts, wagons and buggies pass before our tree as the surrounding countryside becomes more pastoral. The bustling roadway draws the family, and after decades of clearing land and building their farm, they choose to move closer to the Stone Road. One day oxen appear; straining to pull a two-story brick house on log rollers. The oxen draw closer and then turn from the road and pull the house to its new location behind our tree. Over time the tree witnesses the coming and going of the farm’s barns, outbuildings and greenhouses, as well as horse-drawn wagons, tractors, cars and trucks as daily life and farming practices modernize.
The tree celebrates its first centennial as bus services replace stagecoaches and the first personal automobiles appear along the roadway. World War I comes and goes and tractors, cars and trucks replace the horse-drawn traffic. The Depression settles in and the road becomes a make-work project. Its new paved new condition deserves a new name: Brant County Highway #53. World War II arrives and agricultural production in the surrounding landscape intensifies. As the decades continue to march on our tree just keeps on growing ever higher and ever wider. It sees five generations of the pioneering family use the land, modernize, and eventually downsize. It sees the last of the family leave for the final time and a succession of new owners take over. Our tree celebrates its second centennial amid the uncertainty of Y2K.
Today, a swing hangs from one of our tree’s lofty branches. I like to watch my children playing within the shade of the past. I wish there was a way to see the history written in the bark or the rings of our tree but I’ll have to settle for my imagination.