Wednesday, October 16, 2019

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Doing Something with September 11th

The front page of the September 11, 2002 Toronto Star featured a black-bordered repro of the most pornographic photo taken of the World Trade Center attack, the one that shows the second tower just hit, with a lurid cloud of yellow-orange aircraft fuel blossoming from its far side beneath the plume of black smoke rising from the other, already-striken building. Above the photo the headline read "One Year Later". On lower page left, the Star’s columnist in charge of inflating public hysteria, Rosie DiManno, filed a typically purple column titled "New York’s heart still beats strong", written from the top of the Empire State Building. On lower right, New York correspondent William Walker leader reads "US on the alert as threats mount". The paper’s entire second section has the same "One Year Later" theme, including a story by new Canadian consul-general to NYC, Pamela Wallin, who informs us that emotions in the city are still raw, but at least doesn’t try to convince us that having 2/3s of U.S. and Canadian media converge on the city for the anniversary has anything to do with it. The Star’s business section’s has a more sedate "Life’s gotta go on, you know" lead, with a photo of the pillars of the New York Stock Exchange plastered over with a huge American flag. Even the food/life section leads with a feature titled "9-11 and after", with Sam Grewal telling readers that the New York club crowd is back on the fun trail and that people are once again eating and drinking. The Entertainment section reviews "11.09.01: trying to explain it", which is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. The sports section lead, last in the paper, is an opinion piece by Geoff Baker suggesting that professional sports remains as fixed on self and money as ever.

Last night the television networks, or at least the ones that pretend to cover current events, were a solid orgy of 9-11 documentaries and victim testimonials, with more of the same promised for most of today’s prime- and day-time schedule. CBC radio is spending the day with a Shielah Rogers-cooked commemoration (featuring commissioned poems and stories by a predicably multicultural cross-section of the arts community), perhaps as penance for the fact that while the planes were being crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year, Rogers was giggling over the folk songs her listeners had written about her—while the decision-makers of the network were, presumably, napping in the network’s control rooms and executive offices.

I suppose all this is designed to bring us closure, or to reinvigorate our sense of righteous victimhood. But the only emotions it invokes in me are an uneasiness about the mass media’s reluctance to either let this event go or to integrate it into the dynamic fabric of evolving world realities, and more simple exhaustion and irritation. We need to remind ourselves that the Americans haven’t been able to catch the bastards who planned the attack, but their military apparatus, while pursuing the Al Qaeda into Pakistan and kicking out the Taliban out of Afghanistan, have killed at least as many innocent Afghani civilians as died when the two buildings in New York collapsed. Arguably worse, the U.S. is on the verge of making itself the worst rogue state since Nazi Germany by launching a unilateral attack on Iraq for continuing to possess "weapons of mass destruction" the Americans themselves mostly taught them to make during the Iran/Iraq blood bath in the 1980s. And while this jamboree of self-involvement pollutes the airwaves and most of our cherished civil liberties, 200 million people in Africa are dying of AIDS.

We need to get some perspective on 9-11, and stop wanking over it. There are more important things than showering ourselves with ostentatious displays of public sentimentality. Filling our heads with righteous but fundamentally useless emotions isn’t enough. There are things we can do something about without killing people in foreign countries, or by giving up our civil liberties so we can have an impenetrable security perimeter around our own. Some of them are right in front of our noses.

For instance, Toronto has just experienced the driest August in its history, and that was preceded by the hottest July on record. At the end of Euclid Avenue, the two small maple trees planted beside the Starbucks outlet have died. This is the second year in a row a tree has died there because no one in Starbucks management had the common sense to send a barrista out there with a bucket of water. Further up the street an oak tree has lost most of its leaves, and a half dozen maples are in a serious state of stress because nobody is watering them. One has a dead top, while the others are showing blackened, bare branches.

This may seem a trivial matter, but in a year that has seen a record number of smog alerts, it has serious implications. Toronto’s boulevard trees have been accurately described as the lungs of the city, converting massive volumes of CO2 back to oxygen, and more important, sucking tons of airborne pollutants from the air through transpiration. But to do this, trees need water. A mature boulevard maple, for instance, can suck 400 gallons of water from the soil during a hot summer day, and this summer, far too many of them haven’t gotten the water they need.

The local counselor, Joe Pantalone, a left-winger who calls himself a tree advocate, clearly understands the importance of planting trees in cities. But either he doesn’t understand the need to provide them with water, or he’s become convinced, along with all his right-wing colleagues downtown that governments aren’t supposed to govern proactively any more, and that it’s enough to cut services, raise property taxes, and blame senior governments for the decline in our quality of life.

What Toronto desperately needs is a set of bylaws that ensure the protection and care of its boulevard trees, because it doesn’t look like the heat and lack of rain this summer is an anomaly. Homeowners, rental landlords and commercial businesses need to know what the trees must have to survive, and they need to be compelled to provide it. I’m not an arbourist, so I can’t specify exactly what the minimum protection a boulevard tree needs, but what I can do is provide a couple of common sense examples.

Up at Healy Willan park just up the street on Euclid Avenue, the parks board has a program that sees a large concrete wading pool filled each day so that small children can have some fun, cool off, and infect one another with pink eye. At the end of the day, the playground attendants pull the plug on the pool and let a couple of thousand gallons of water drain into the sewers. Meanwhile, the trees in the park are in serious distress because they aren’t watered. But because it apparently isn’t in the job description of the playground attendants, or more likely because nobody has thought to put it there, they don’t spend the last fifteen minutes of their work day taking a few buckets of water around to splash on the roots of the trees. Can’t somebody at City Hall scrounge up a few five gallon pails and park them in the sheds at the park?

The property immediately south of my house has a middle-aged Manitoba maple in the front yard that has been dropping leaves most of the summer—a standard response to drought—and is probably now doomed. The property is a rental with four or five suites in it, none of them large or luxurious enough to attract tenants who’ll take responsibility for the grounds. The building also has no outdoor water outlet at the front of the building, and the landlord hasn’t provided a hose long enough to reach the front. I’ve been watering the tree most of the summer, and I’ve probably poured a thousand gallons around the roots from my metred supply since June. But even with this, the tree has dropped a quarter of its leaves, possibly because one of the tenants drags his large mutt out every morning to take a leak a foot from the tree’s trunk.

Now, I don’t see any malice anywhere here, just ignorance and civic inattention. The dog-owner doesn’t know his dog is injuring the tree—or didn’t until I told him. And the landlord, who isn’t rich, is quite naturally trying to squeeze every dollar he can out of his investment. He’d comply with a bylaw if there was one, but he isn’t going to spend money watering the tree out of the goodness of his heart on the abstract promise that he’ll be contributing to clean air in the city. There has to be a legal obligation to make this happen.

A bylaw to protect these trees would be hard to enforce, and harder still to assess penalty, aside from charging homeowners for the removal of trees that die with no detectable cause other than water stress. But the existence of a tree bylaw, which must be accompanied with a well-publicized set of practical instructions for the care of boulevard trees, would go far to prevent neglect in the years to come. Toronto’s trees are valuable urban amenities, and properly considered, are part of the same crucial infrastructure that include sewers and water services. Letting a tree die for lack of water is at least as much a violation of public safety as dumping solvents into the storm sewers, and we need the instruments that will make that part of common consciousness. We won’t be the first to do this, either. In what is now Germany during the Middle Ages, tree murder was a capital offense, and the punishment was to cut out the navel of the offender, nail it to a tree and make the offender run around the tree until he (or she) ran out of intestines. We don’t need to get that gory, but we do need to take our city trees much more seriously than we’re doing. And it’s something we can do something about.

1697 w. September 11th, 2002

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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