By Jim Poling Sr.
A friend is ill and not doing well. I’m watching her closely and, if the illness looks incurable, I will end her life.
The friend is not a human, of course. She is a tree – a tall, proud Eastern Hemlock. Also known as the Canadian Hemlock. I have known her for almost 40 years. She is much older than that. Probably 100 plus.
I don’t know what sickened her. Needles have dropped from her lowest limbs, leaving dry, dead looking branches halfway up her height. Yet, her top portion is full and healthy looking.
Dying branches can be a sign of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an invasive insect native to Asia. It is a nasty bug that sucks fluids from the tree and can kill a hemlock in as few as three years.
It is a serious threat to hemlocks in the eastern U.S. and now parts of Canada.
There are, however, no other symptoms or signs of the insect on my tree, such as small clumps of dirty cotton at the needle bases. At any rate, it has me concerned, and I’m watching it for any new symptoms.
It could be one of the many other pests, blights or rusts that torment trees. Or, nothing except the natural needle loss that most conifers undergo.
The hemlock is not the prettiest tree in the forest. It has a dark, sinister look intensified by the perceived malevolence of its name.
Poison hemlock is a highly toxic plant found throughout Canada but the Eastern Hemlock tree is not related and is not poisonous. The tree got its name because early settlers from Europe found that crushed needles from the tree had an odour similar to the poisonous plant they knew from back home.
It may not be the prettiest tree, but it is one of the kindest and most patient. It provides many birds and animals food and shelter.
The hemlock was widely respected and much used by Indigenous peoples. To some it was a sacred tree because it provided medicines.
Tea was made from the inner bark to soothe colds, fevers and stomach ailments. Bark also was used to make poultices that slowed bleeding. The bark is rich in tannins, used extensively in tanning animal hides for leather.
The hemlock has given humans and wildlife much more than food, shelter, medicines and materials for tanning and building. Hemlocks teach us about patience, sharing and how to accept the changes of aging gracefully.
They are slow growing and long-lived. They typically grow 18 to 30 metres (60 to 100 feet) tall and live for 400 years or more.
It’s hard to stand beneath one without feeling you are in the presence of a wise elder who can give valuable lessons to someone willing to watch and listen.
For instance, roots of one hemlock sometimes merge with the roots of others to share water and nutrients. One tree might be rooted in shallow soil and not getting proper nourishment, so neighbouring hemlocks share what their roots are gathering.
I’ve been told by some people that my hemlock is sickly and obtrusive and should be cut down. Just another tree taking up space.
I refuse to cut any living tree without compelling evidence that its life should be ended. Our society is quick to kill trees for convenience, then soothe its guilt by replacing it with a seedling.
In some ways, trees are a higher form of life than humans. They live longer, grow taller and stronger, listen more than they speak (through fungal networks in their roots), and are among the most tolerant species on the planet.
Human bodies take oxygen from the air and convert it to poisonous carbon dioxide (CO2). We add more poisonous CO2 with our cars and other machinery.
Trees absorb CO2, convert it into sugars and release life-giving oxygen back into the air. Without that oxygen there would be no life on earth.
Some will argue that trees are nowhere near a higher form of life because they do not possess intelligence. However, as anyone who follows politics knows, intelligence is not an indicator of a higher form of life.
Whether or not they are a higher form of life, one thing is clear: Trees deserve our respect.