The red maple

(Photos by Lonnie Wishart)

I loved this tree. It was my first favourite thing about this house on the coast. It was a screen of colour between me and the world. In a way it connected this home with my first home.

I didn’t grow up here—I grew up on the prairies, in a century-old stone house perched above a river valley. The house was ringed in old maple trees. At first the maples filled with little bursts of spring colour. In summer the leaves were passionately green, dark trunks twisted and Entish in the shade of the canopy. By Hallowe’en the leaves were golden, blowing in the yellow grass, just bare branches looming above.

We don’t get seasons here, or at least most people don’t. The Northwest Coast is always green. Folks who move here from almost any other part of the country mourn the passing of the seasons. But our maple budded in spring, and transformed into bewildering colour in autumn. For me it was a little like watching a movie of the seasons, without slogging through spring mud or digging out the snow tires.

My image of Canada features an iconic, Group of Seven tree between viewer and scenery. The world is more interesting when seen through a tree. I caught glimpses of seaplanes and cruise ships behind branches and leaves.

But in the early morning of October 10 an autumn storm swept Kaien Island. My friend Captain Pawel Urbanski told me in the morning that gauges at the container port measured to 160km–just over 86 knots. The gusts exceeded the capacity of those gauges. That’s far into Beaufort Force 12, the top of the scale. A hurricane.

By midnight the house shook against the gusts. At the foundation the furniture groaned with the movement, and at the top the floor danced underfoot. I’ve stood nearby as military jets took off, and that’s the closest I can come to describing the sound. All over town fallen trees hung from power lines. Roofs were torn off and thrown away. A Corvette was mashed beneath a rolling fifth wheel. One mobile home looked as if it had been blown apart from the inside.

Sometime just after midnight, with no sound that could be heard over the roar of the storm, the red maple gave up. It toppled toward the road, causing almost no damage.

And just like that the window was empty. The red maple no longer stood between me and the world.

I went outside. Cold rain stung. A snapped power cable whipped me back inside. I watched from the parlour as the whole city fell into darkness. The harbour was churned white in the reflected lights of the grain ship Ioannis Theo at Anchorage Charlie. Exploding transformers lit up the sky like cold blue lightning strikes.

In the morning the maple was just another fallen tree in grey light. I wasn’t keeping a meticulous count, but by the time I left on a failed mission to find a working telephone about two hundred people had already taken pictures of the tree. I could barely leave the driveway for cars parked haphazardly on the street as people grabbed shots with their mobile phones.

At first I was angry. None of them had cared about it when it was alive, only now that it was collapsed on the hedge. As we waited in the car Kasia said we could make a fort in the torn-up root, and then I was too sad to talk about it.

The red maple had stood through so many winter gales. Was it my age? My father’s age? I don’t know. But the sense of loss was surprising, as if a friend had died.

It eased as the day went on. It had become a problem to be dealt with. But in time a craftsman I know came along. I traded him the fallen tree for a cutting board made from it, already knowing that I would commission him to make me a piece of furniture from it as well. We’ll be able to keep it, in a way.

But I’m still getting used to the emptiness. If the front windows showed an early A.Y. Jackson, they’re now more Toni Onley—from here squat coastal homes defiantly hunch against the broad sweep of misty hills and harbour. It’s colder, less intimate, less human. Raw nature is beautiful, but beautiful in a different way.

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.