Strolling the peaceful pathways, it’s hard to remember you’re walking through the site of a vicious attack.
It’s a quiet late autumn morning at the Public Gardens. A woman sits on a bench, earbuds in, reading a book. An elderly man in a light jacket and ball cap strolls along the path parallel to Sackville Street, near the pond.
But when you look closer, you see the signs. Behind a bench, fabric hangs loosely from a trunk, protecting the graft underneath. By Griffin’s Pond, a weeping golden willow planted in memory of Gordon Thomason leans over the water, a ring around its trunk also sheathed in fabric. And the Gardens’ beloved European beech, over 200 years old, now stands surrounded by portable metal barricades, its survival in question.
On the night of July 25 and 26, someone attacked 32 trees in the Gardens with an axe. Four were so badly damaged workers cut them right away. More than a dozen were “girdled,” meaning the attacker removed the bark in a ring around the trunk. Typically, this kills the tree, because it severs the connection between roots and leaves.
This was no impulsive act. Whoever attacked the trees would have been at it for hours, hacking away at the bark.
Reaction was immediate and powerful. The headline on a Zane Woodford story referred to the perpetrator as “some asshole.” The chair of the Public Gardens Foundation and the Friends of the Public Gardens jointly put up $50,000 in reward money, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for what they called “these senseless acts of vandalism.” Children hung signs from the Gardens fence, expressing love for the trees. Then, just six weeks later, in September, someone set fire to a building in the Gardens dating from 1847.
Who went after the trees? Why? Were they trying to make a point? Or was it just a senseless attack on a beloved public space? Could the lack of meaning be the point?
“We’re always more upset and frightened by acts of violence that we don’t understand,” says University of Ottawa professor Nomi Claire Lazar, an expert in political nihilism and author of Out of Joint: Power, Crisis, and the Rhetoric of Time. She compares the attack to “a mass shooting incident, but against trees.”
“How could someone do this sort of thing? It’s sort of a provocation… This person was deeply committed to this act of violence, and that makes you want it to have meaning all the more. It’s not like they just got mad and punched a wall.”
There could be a purely personal meaning — someone who is “aggrieved and just wants to cause harm, and is maybe channelling that urge against the trees instead of against people,” Lazar says. Or maybe they’re operating from a completely different perspective, like a complicated conspiracy theory, or a worldview coloured by mental illness. (While it may be hard to imagine a conspiracy theory involving trees, Lazar says it’s less outlandish than some of what’s out there right now.)
Or, she says, maybe it’s just nihilism: “I’m going to destroy this because you say you care about it … I’m going to destroy this thing that matters to you, to get your attention.”
And people do care. About trees in general, and about the Public Gardens in particular.
Former Halifax poet laureate Sue Goyette’s latest book, Monoculture, imagines a future Nova Scotia in which there is only one stand of forest left — and it’s a tourist attraction. Goyette was in Banff co-facilitating a writers’ workshop on the night of the attack.
“I immediately felt homesick for the trees, because I’ve spent a lot of time in that park, and know the trees pretty well,” she says, adding that the Public Gardens “feels like a vase of flowers in the middle of a lot of bullshit … I use the garden as a kind of filtration system for my own emotional well-being. I visit it as something that’s gone on long before me, and will go on long after me. And it’s accessible. It’s right in the city. I can get on my bike and go there.”
Helena Moncrieff lives in Toronto, but visits the Public Gardens every time she’s in Halifax. “There’s a calmness that comes over us when we’re under the trees,” says the author of the book The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest.
She says the appeal of trees is twofold. On the one hand, they are ephemeral. Buds form, then leaf. Leaves unfurl, then change colour and drop. Trees change from one day to the next. At the same time, they are enduring. And because they endure, individual trees develop meaning for us.
“That tree is always there,” Moncrieff says. “It’s a marker for us: ‘Let’s go have our picnic under the gingko or the big oak tree.’” Noting that some of the trees damaged were over 100 years old, she adds, “You can imagine all of these things this tree has seen. Think of all the storms it has survived. Ice storms, snow storms. It’s been there in war times. You touch that tree and you know that all the knowledge is there.”
Halifax is a city of trees — look at it from the air in summer, and you’ll see more trees than roads, notes Peter Duinker, professor emeritus at Dalhousie’s resource and environmental studies school, and founder of the Halifax Tree Project.
But even among so much vegetation, the Public Gardens stands out. It “sits in a constellation of green spaces,” including Camp Hill Cemetery, the Middle and North Common, and Citadel Hill, he says, and of those, only two are treed. Duinker says in terms of ecology, the Public Gardens is not exactly an “ecological boon,” because of the number of exotic species growing there. But at the same time, its contribution to Halifax’s green space is “not inconsequential … And if we go to socio-cultural value, it vies with Point Pleasant Park as the most important piece of treed landscape in the city.”
Halifax is not the only city to have experienced attacks on trees. In St. Catharines, Ont., someone girdled several trees along a waterfront trail in 2015. At the time, St. Catharines Standard reporter Don Fraser called it “a tree massacre.”
Fraser says he also recalls trees girdled or chopped down “along some pretty nice properties.” In 2012, several trees in Nanaimo were girdled, by someone Nanaimo News Bulletin reporter Toby Gorman referred to as an “assassin.” In both the St. Catharines and Nanaimo cases, there is speculation the attackers were property owners who felt they impeded their view.
Moncrieff says trees will sometimes “fail suddenly” if they are standing in the way of development: “There’s no proof (they’ve been deliberately killed) but it seems kind of convenient.” Duinker recalls an attack on a “huge” horse chestnut tree in Copenhagen that was inconveniencing the owners of a skate park, and says about a decade ago he saw evidence of trees “ravaged” along the Northwest Arm by what he presumes was a local homeowner.
But those motives don’t apply to the Public Gardens attack. It’s not like the trees are blocking anyone’s view, or that the park is about to be opened up for development.
Duinker says people keep asking him what he thinks motivated the attacks. “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” he says. “The police are unlikely to find the perpetrators. So where does that line of inquiry get you?”
Asked about progress in the case, Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Const. Nicolas Gagnon didn’t offer much detail, saying in an email that “investigators are conducting a thorough investigation and are exploring all avenues to advance the investigations.”
But Lazar says motive does matter, and it’s natural for us to seek meaning. “The only way that we can exist together, socially and politically, is by trying to understand each other,” she says. “The violence against the trees is also a kind of a violence against public space, public discourse, collective political life.”
In some ways, that makes it a perfect crime for the times. “Destruction for its own sake,” Lazar says, “does seem to be very much of the moment, where everybody is kind of unsettled, and not sure what things mean.”
“It feels like an event that suits the time we’re in,” she says. “The rage aligns with the way the world is right now.” While she is “still reckoning with what happened” to the trees, Goyette says it’s important to not lose sight of compassion, and to recognize that situations can be complex: “Apart from the tragedy and inappropriateness of harming something in this way, I’m also noting the importance of being alert to the kind of thinking that brings a person to a space where they would do this. That’s not an easy answer. It’s not ‘vote ’em off the island.’ But here we are. It’s complicated.”
Both Lazar and Goyette expressed some relief that anyone angry enough to do this at least did not attack another person.
If the purpose of the attacks was to kill the trees, it’s too soon to know whether they succeeded, Duinker says.
We should have a better idea come June, when we can see how well they have leafed. Girdling interrupts the ability of the trees’ leaves and roots to communicate with each other. So, for the trees to die, either the girdling would have had to be very effective, or the grafting (a process usually carried out with much younger trees) will have failed, Duinker explains.
He says girdling is so devastating because, “The leaves that come out are all predicated on sugars in the roots. If the trees had been able to load up their root storage with sugars, and those sugars can find their way up to the buds to make new leaves in the spring, we can be fairly confident they will make it.”
The municipality is waiting, too. HRM spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray responded to an interview request with an email saying that “staff are waiting to see what will come in the spring when the trees leaf out.” Spring is also when there were will be a second phase of grafting.
“Ultimately,” Goyette says, surely echoing the feelings of many in the city, “I’m continually hoping the trees survive. I’m rooting for the trees. I was thinking I might visit them in the spring, when they could use the company of me saying, ‘Leaf, leaf, leaf!’”