Replacing a tree someone killed

Sarah Houser with the healthy 20-year-old blue spruce damaged by human action so that the tree will die within months. Photo: Thabang (Ben) Mashologu

By Jennifer Humphries

“We’re passionate about trees,” said Sarah Housser. “We moved to Ottawa from Toronto in part because we saw it as a welcoming community where we could connect more with nature. So the deliberate destruction of our tree hit us hard.”

At the end of May, Housser was gardening at her Dow’s Lake area home when she noticed that a large strip of bark had been removed from her beautiful blue spruce. She was shocked, then devastated when she realized that the deep slash all around the trunk would seriously harm the tree.

Housser asked two arborists to take a look. She was hoping that perhaps it wasn’t a case of human action, but rather that an animal had chewed the bark off. But the severity and evenness of the damage suggested the use of tools, which was confirmed by the experts. The spruce will die by degrees as a result of the damage. It’s a process called “girdling” by which a band of bark completely encircling the tree is stripped, making it impossible for the tree to deliver sugars from the leaves down to the roots.

A gift from a Sandy Hill neighbour who was troubled by the wilful destruction of the tree. Photo: Sarah Housser

“We reached out to the police, who asked us to file an online report,” Housser said. So far no action has been taken, and it’s unlikely that the culprit will be identified. As well, the city has advised her that the tree is not of sufficient diameter to be considered a “distinctive tree,” so its injury would not constitute a violation of the city’s tree bylaw and no penalty would be imposed in any case. Regarding replacement, the tree is on private property, so the city could provide a new tree but only to be planted on the city road allowance where, Housser explained, the city had already recently planted a crab apple to replace a maple taken down a few years ago.

The tree was only 20 years old. A blue spruce in an urban environment can live for 100 years or more. For the family, who are passionate about trees, it is a hugely sad loss.

“It will die very soon,” Housser told me. “It is already drying out and visibly deteriorating. We will wait until it is dead before taking it down. We have been told that will be spring at the latest.”

Beyond the tree’s inevitable death, the family instantly felt less secure in their home. “We felt a sense of violation,” Housser said. “Our children play close to the tree. It makes us question how safe they are playing in their own yard, which is sad.”

But neighbours, nearby and across town, offered reassurance. After the incident was reported in the Ottawa Citizen by reporter Bruce Deachman, someone dropped a sapling on the family’s porch with a note that said: “I read your story today and felt so sad that someone did this to you and your tree…Here is a tree as a symbol that people care that this happened to you. Please let your boys know that most people are good. Best of luck from Carrie in Sandy Hill.”

After a number of people offered to contribute to a new tree, Housser started a GoFundMe campaign. The family would like to replace the spruce with a tree of similar size. The cost to remove the dying tree and stump and to purchase a new tree will be at least $5,000, possibly up to $7,000.

As Housser states on the GoFundMe site, “It is about more than just having a new tree, it’s the principle. We want to show whoever did this that they cannot just kill a living being for selfish reasons and also that they cannot intimidate and violate our family in this way. Planting a nice, big, tall tree would help us send that message.”

While the vandalism is depressing and the loss of a healthy, treasured spruce is deeply regrettable, Housser, her husband Thabang (Ben) Mashologu, their children and the neighbourhood are flipping it into a positive. They aren’t looking for recourse. They just want a tree. They are grateful for the widespread support and encouragement they have received. And they believe that our community values trees for a range of reasons – environmental, social and aesthetic – and that we too have no time or patience for those who vandalize them.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association and a member of the city’s working group for the Urban Forest Management Plan. You can reach her at environment@glebeca.ca.

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