From the Archives · History

In Praise of the Lowly Poplar

Photo by Gyuszi Bacsi

This piece, written for my newspaper column On the Rock in 1992, was written under the heavy influence of the great Walt Whitman, whose literary blood also coursed through the veins of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, though I’m hardly in their league.

Still, it remains one of my all time favourites…

Last Saturday, in the Valley at least, was a special day that likely went uncelebrated by most of us.

Saturday was, you may recall, the first day of a glorious long weekend. But it was also the day that the poplars, burnished by a hot sun, caressed by a dry wind, burst their buds, releasing the first leafy foliage of summer.

It was an achingly beautiful sight, the timorous green against an azure sky, a dazzling relief to the harsh monochromes of winter and spring.

Maybe it’s time we paused to contemplate the lowly poplar. We Northerners, (and I am as guilty as the next) tend to take it for granted, dismissing it as “a garbage tree” or “an overgrown weed.”

Long scorned by the sawyer as a nuisance and by the wood burner as a greasy fibre that burns too hot and too fast, poplars tend to grow quickly, rot prematurely, and snap perilously in high winds.

And yet it is the most ubiquitous of deciduous trees in these parts, supremely adapted to the difficult latitudes of the Canadian Shield, thriving where its nobler cousins, the maple, ash, and oak cannot gain a foothold.

And I wonder, too, whether most of us here On the Rock are not a lot more like the poplar than we care to admit.

Fully 19 per cent of Ontario’s forest is made up of poplar trees, which are also known as trembling aspen, quaking aspen, golden aspen, or trembling poplar.

Although it has long been given short shrift by we who live among it, the poplar is a vital part of the food chain that sustains us. Poplar catkins, the hanging strands of yellowish green flowers produced annually by mature trees before their buds pop, contain about 20 per cent crude protein, more than most cereal crops.

Moose, deer, beaver and bear feast on various parts of the foliage, bark and twigs. Besides providing shade, poplar leaves clean our air, creating oxygen out of carbon dioxide and water.

But what I like best about the poplar is that their leaves are lured from their protective coverings a good week earlier than the birch, beech or maple, providing us with a bold promise that summer has indeed arrived.

You don’t believe the poplar has suffered some bad press in its time? Consider this: when Sudbury’s earliest city planners laid out the first streets in the central core they named the north-south running streets after Governors General (Durham, Elgin, Lisgar, Dufferin), and the east-west streets after trees.

Although the species is now almost extinct hereabouts, Elm retains pride of place as a main thoroughfare. Pine is a respectable parallel, ditto Maple, Ash, Oak and Walnut. Poplar, on the other hand, is a measly two-block effort running between Regent and Parkwood.

But isn’t that always the way? Streets, like schools and parks, are named after the great, the wannabe-great, and the saintly. The most common tree, like the rest of us, barely rates. I mean, do you have a street named after you? Nah, me neither.

But what would this world be without the likes of you and me and the lowly poplar? The vast majority of us are neither wealthy, powerful or saintly. And yet the vast majority of air time is devoted to those who are.

There is a grand delusion at work here, as if we all aspire to be rich, powerful or beautiful, as if their lives are somehow more inherently interesting, important or carefree than our own. But does the poplar envy the maple, I wonder? Should it?

On the Rock, after all, the poplar grows in an abundance that the more colourful maple or loftier pine cannot hope to emulate. The poplar propagates in a profusion that guarantees its survival. It endures.

So, too, the vast majority of us. We are born, play, dream, struggle, reproduce, age, and eventually snap in the winds of time. And yet there is always this sense that we should somehow be more than we are.

We meet at high school reunions and size each other up by waistline, dollar sign, title, hair line, house size. No one ever confesses to being common, ordinary, or just plain happy.

To be common should never be equated with conformity. Although extremely prolific, no two poplars are exactly the same. Although our lives may appear ordinary, we are all individual and unique, and that, too, is part of the glory of life.

For the most part that tiny minority, the rich and powerful, do not deign to recognize the existence of the rest of us, until they need us to fight a war, buy a product, or fix the plumbing.

When we have the temerity to speak out of turn and question the right or the wisdom of the high and mighty to manage our mutual affairs, the voices of labour, women, native people, gays or environmentalists are then dismissed as “special interests,” as if, taken collectively, we are not the clear majority.

But then there are times, like that brief week in spring when the poplar leafs out before any other tree, when we, the common, ordinary people come blazing into our own.

D-Day was such a time, and next week we will pause to celebrate the memories of otherwise unexceptional people who gave their lives for the greater good.

But the 50th Anniversary of D-Day is an event that has been sanctioned, if you will, by the gatekeepers who own and control the media and the other commanding heights of the economy.

Most of the time, when the masses of people band together to make history—strikes, revolutions, and civil insurrections—such action is deemed to be threatening, and is little remembered.

Elections, too, are a time when we poplars are given an opportunity to make history. Part of the fun, modern polling not excepted, is the wild unpredictability of the outcome.

But the hangover comes the next morning, or the next year, with the realization that little, if anything, has really changed. What was supposed to be an empowering experience turns out to have somehow reinforced the status quo. We are merely poplars, after all.

But we are poplars! We are greatly, gloriously, fallibly alive, and each year we plant our gardens, don our shorts, and stick out our leaves long before the actuaries, nay-sayers and smart money say it is safe to do so.

And somehow we survive. North to the very verge of the treeline. In rocky, coarse, acidic soil that our more majestic southern cousins wither at the very sight of. Our lives may be short, but we support a myriad of life along the way, and even in our deaths we nurture future generations by creating new humous On the Rock.

So here’s to the welfare mom, the unemployed student, the hardrock miner, the taxation data centre clerk, the teacher, the barkeep, the tout at Sudbury Downs, the CN trainman punching a headlit hole through the endless miles of a dark Northern Ontario night.

Here’s to the seasonal and the temporary, the casual and the dishwasher, the pensioner and the veteran, the grade school kid, the gypsy framer and the long haul trucker, the nurse and the homemaker and the stationary engineer.

Here’s to the poplar in all of us. As the Latin scholar was wont to say Non illegitimus carborondum – Don’t let the bastards wear you down. After all, in the North, at least, we poplars have the rest of them surrounded.

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