“Most Are True”: Stories About Trees With Jac

Whether you realize it or not, you probably have a “favourite tree”. Yesterday I thought about mine, while in conversation with Jac Siemens.

I spent the first two decades of my life so immersed in the prairie bush that I was barely conscious of the trees surrounding me.

There isn’t really that much “forest” in the R.M. of Hanover, but there are deep pockets of wildness, and the farm where I grew up was nestled into the edge of what had been HBC lands, with just an undeveloped road allowance between our yard and the expanse of who-knows-what. 

I didn’t often see other people — back then, the R.M. wasn’t nearly as populated or developed as it is today. So I spent my time outside getting to know the trees. 

Anyone who spends time around trees probably does this — likely subconsciously. I named them. They had personalities. They had friends. There was a large old oak and a poplar near our house, about ten feet apart. Clearly they were best friends, standing together a ways from the rest of the bush, in a meadow. On windy days, they conversed. I imagined what they must be saying to each other.

On the farmyard, there were rows of giant old cottonwoods. Being a dairy farm, the milkhouse came alive with my parents and grandparents bustling in every evening after school and before supper. I liked to be near this activity, so I climbed the nearest tree and would sit there observing, feeling like the king of the castle. 

I laid claim to this tree. I called it my own. It was the most climbable cottonwood on the farm. My brother wanted his own tree too so I told him he could have the one next to mine. (It was much more difficult to climb but this obviously was not a concern to me.)

We hovered around these trees, parked our bikes under these trees, made friends with the newest kittens under these trees. 

They each had a character all their own. 

I never really thought much about the significance or impact of these and other special trees from my childhood until last night when Andrew and I spent some time talking about trees with Jac, and thus I learned that he has been getting to know the trees of Steinbach, and secretly naming them, for years.

Today Jac Siemens is a City Councillor, but back in the 1980s and ’90s, he was head of the Parks and Rec department. (The conversation became admittedly awkward when he told Andrew he hasn’t read Once Removed just yet but plans to soon. Um… anyone who has already read the book will understand. Ha.)

Jac has cared about the city’s canopy for many decades, and has been involved in securing many of the lovely trees we now appreciate. He also has noticed the beautiful old trees which were there long before any Mennonites arrived.

Honestly, I’m not a great note-taker nor do I record conversations — it’d feel too much like work then. I’m very off-the-cuff and liable to offend. I like to think it’s part of my charm. And so, here are just a few observations from what little I remember of our conversation.

First, Eugene Derksen’s oaks. This is their name in Jac’s mind, and now in mine too. You see them today in the parking lot where I spoke with my dear friend Tamara after I had my second vaccination. (This is near the supersite.) Otherwise known as the gravelled parking lot behind Derksen Printers. “Have you seen this oak?” she exclaimed. “I have! It’s amazing!” I replied. We stood and stared. Jac says these magnificent oaks grew very big, probably because they were near the creek. 

More about oaks. I hadn’t realized it, but I’ve long been associating oaks with cemeteries… most recently when I was privileged to explore the original Rosengard cemetery (which is private, unmarked, and off-limits). In those pictures, you’ll see many oaks on a hill (and, stumps of oaks). When I had initially been following the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve and noticed that was the location of this cemetery, I stood on the road and stared in the distance. I saw the oaks. I felt that must be the site of the cemetery. This was later confirmed when I was able to visit and walk the site with permission from the land owner. But why did I feel that was the cemetery site exactly? I realized now, it was the oaks!

Jac explained that oaks are frequently found in cemeteries. This is because the oak’s taproot is massive. It is the same below the ground as it is above the ground. It’s nearly impossible to remove. Clearing land with oaks is really not worth the trouble so farmers leave them alone. This is why areas with stands of oaks often then became cemeteries. The oaks in Steinbach’s Pioneer Cemetery were over 100 years old at the time the Mennonites arrived here. By now those beautiful oaks are over 250 years old!

I will leave you with one final tree story. It is the tree that Jac calls “Joe Penner’s Basswood”.

He began describing it when I interrupted him. I showed him a picture on my phone, “Is this it?” Jac confirmed that this was the very same tree he was talking about. His favourite tree in Steinbach. I feel the same way. The other day I was walking by the tree and its beauty stopped me in my tracks. I had to take a picture. Jac says this tree is about 65 years old. It is magnificent. I think Andrew’s Aunt Gloria grew up near that tree, so I must ask her about it.

What’s your favourite tree? 

Feature photo: a much-loved tree along Bush Farm Trail… a trail and park that I credit Jac with finagling for our City. 

Photo below: the stunning Basswood which stops me in my tracks every time.