L.M. Montgomery simply loved trees. Her journals are filled with notes about trees–the beauty of landscape, like “the groves of maple and birch just turning to scarlet and gold” (Sep 25, 1889), or the desire to disappear and run “down to my favorite old spot under a big maple tree in the old school woods” (Feb 18, 1890). Her “dear old woods” are key to Montgomery’s growing up, both for beauty–“all shadowy nooks, carpeted with moss, or paths with ferns and wildflowers nodding along them … smiling through the traceries of the spruce boughs, or explored by the eye the intersecting glades … and ferny depths” (May 6, 1890)–but also critical for her sense of space, especially her home in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island (the real-life behind Avonlea).
Trees defined Montgomery’s sense of home, but also her sense of otherness:
“There was a heavy white frost to-night and this morning the town looked beautiful. All the trees were dreams of mist, looking as if a breath would demolish them, and across the river the forest looked like fairyland” (Jan 26, 1891).
Montgomery‘s classic work, Anne of Green Gables is, of course, filled with the love of trees. Mrs. Rachel Lynde begins the story by saying that “trees aren’t much company,” but Anne changes all of that. When she finds her way to Green Gables, she names the trees–as L.M. Montgomery did herself in her journals.
And then, of course, there is “the Avenue”–not just kind of pretty, but “the White Way of Delight.”
Emily from Emily of New Moon is also a namer of trees as part of her mystical negotiation of her world. It begins more mundane than Anne’s “Snow Queen” with Emily’s “Adam” and “Eve,” but trees are part of her transport to the land of faërie:
“the fairies of the white clover and satin catkins, the little green folk of the grass, the elves of the young fir-trees, sprites of wind and wild fern and thistledown. Anything might happen there–everything might come true” (Emily of New Moon, ch. 1).
Trees were such an essential part of Montgomery’s imaginary landscape. As they helped her transcend the normal and sometimes terribly parts of her life and allow her to walk in the ways of wonderland, so they are part of the magic that helps us as readers fall in love with her characters and walk with them in real-life lands of fantasy.
So it is sad news this week to hear that the passage of Hurricane Dorian by our province has brought great destruction to L.M. Montgomery’s family home. Descendent and caretaker of Montgomery’s original homestead, David Macneil estimates that 80% of the trees on the property were damaged or destroyed. As a lover of trees and as reader of Montgomery–and as someone who grew up in the same community, playing in her graveyard and her church–was moving to hear him describe his heartbreak.
It is okay to mourn the death of trees, I think. I don’t know that the “greats” of the 20th century tell us this, whether Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Platt, Doris Lessing, or Hunter S. Thompson lead us there or not. But the authors I love best–Tolkien and Lewis and Montgomery–they know what trees really are. Tolkien talked somewhere in “On Fairy-stories” that “the proper languages of birds and beasts and trees … is much nearer to the true purposes of Faerie.” Montgomery would have agreed, without every losing the homey, rootedness of trees:
“Emily was always glad that she lived where there were many trees–old ancestral trees, planted and tended by hands long dead, bound up with everything of joy and sorrow that visited the lives in their shadows” (Emily’s Quest, ch. 2).
I am glad, then, to hear that one old tree survived the storm, a century-old apple tree, perhaps a young sapling in one of Montgomery’s visits home. You can read the CBC news story of the Montgomery’s homestead and Hurrican Dorian here, where I found the pictures. I wish them all the best in the cleanup.
I’ll leave you with a little clip, a Canadian Heritage Minute, which was how us younger Canadians learned about history growing up.