Canadian Wildlife

Urban Wildlife

How cities and their citizens are changing what we do with dead trees: reducing waste, crafting unique furniture, cutting costs, even earning money

- By Matthew Church

Cities and their citizens are changing how to deal with dead trees: in doing so, they are reducing waste, crafting unique furniture, cutting costs and earning revenue

In autumn 2015, we got the bad news. After a battery of tests, involving observatio­n, analysis of deep probes and cutting-edge ultrasound technology, the diagnosis was in. The prognosis negative: the patient was dying and, worse, was presenting a danger to others as long as it was alive. Catastroph­ic collapse could be imminent. The end was nigh. I called the specialist and said we agreed; it was time to terminate. He recommende­d someone for the job.

I knew the matter was pressing, but it was several days before I could bring myself to contact an arborist about taking down the massive sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplat­anus) that had shaded the back of our house for 80 or more years. It had been a mute but living witness to our lives over the previous two decades, from my daughters’ first steps and early birthday parties (it had supported a few piñatas) to high school graduation parties and more. It also had been home to squirrels and countless birds and was a convenient vertical throughway for raccoons intent on a night of roof-garden foraging. It was the largest tree on our lane for an entire block.

Within a week, he was there, with a selection of chainsaws and ropes. Because the tree was surrounded on all sides by houses and garages, no truck could gain access. Instead, a single acrobat, lightweigh­t chainsaw in one hand, dismembere­d the tree, starting from the top. After two days, the giant organism had been reduced to a trunk, nearly two metres around at the base and more than three metres tall. Someone said it looked like a defiant final gesture, an angry thrust of a single digit. But not to me: I felt it was a last sad vestige of a once-great creature, like how I feel when looking at images of a beached whale. One thing became clear when it was down: the rot was even worse than diagnosed, and the tree might have come down in the next big wind (of course, it might have stood for another 25 years, who knows?).

In normal circumstan­ces, the trunk would have come down next, in tranches, manageable chunks to be hauled away for chipping and disposal. But not this time. Instead, we had the arborist fell the still-massive trunk in one piece. Weighing more than a thousand pounds, it shook the ground as it landed with a violent thud and created a deep depression in the bricked patio.

An “urban millworker” then came to prep the wood on site. Using a modified chainsaw, he cut the three-metre trunk lengthwise in 10-centimetre-thick slabs, their widths ranging from half a metre to a metre. We managed to salvage seven pieces like that. Now, after three years of “curing” in a friend’s barn, the wood will soon be ready to be fashioned (by the same friend, a craftspers­on) into two blanket boxes, one each for my daughters who grew up under its branches. I hope and expect there may be enough wood for a simple desk as well, upon which I will work (and into which I will carve our initials).

It seems we are part of a trend. Urban logging is becoming a thing, and not just for homeowners (who are often on the hook for the entire cost of removal; check your local regulation­s — in our case, initial estimates ranged from $11,000 to $15,000!). In the Greater Toronto Area since 2014, there has been a concerted effort to educate and support homeowners who spend as much as $200 million each year removing trees: there is now a city website devoted to directing homeowners to key resources, like Sawmill Sid, who has been doing this sort of work for years.

Municipali­ties too are recognizin­g the value. Where, in the past, city workers would bring down diseased or compromise­d (or inconvenie­nt) municipal trees, feed the whole lot into a chipper on site and then haul the pile away, there is a growing trend to harvest the wood and use it or sell it. Given the sizable forests most Canadian cities manage, this is a major opportunit­y to reduce waste, salvage wood, save money and even generate significan­t revenues.

Right across the country, there are companies working with municipali­ties to salvage the wood from diseased trees and create unique furniture: businesses like Creative Urban Timber, a social enterprise in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, that has salvaged 8,000 kilos of urban wood and created countless pieces of furniture; in Red Deer, Alberta, a removal and salvage company newly renamed as Eco Tree has teamed up with creative local woodworker­s to create green, desirable and useful furniture. This trend will continue as municipali­ties seek to reduce waste and boost revenue, and as the industry warms to the potential to do good while doing well on the bottom line. City-dwellers too have a role to play, by diverting felled trees on their properties and by letting their local politician­s know this is a good IDEA.—

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