The brittle oak boughs sent tumbling to the frozen ground by a pair of tree-climbing arborists in Scarborough on Saturday don’t look like much — deadfall, maybe, to the untrained eye.
But, once they’re carefully packed up and shipped to a Hamilton nursery, there’s a reasonable hope that they will serve as a living monument both to the man who brought them here and to the sacrifice made by thousands of Canadians almost a century ago.
It was here, 95 years ago, on a patch of land now unceremoniously hunkered up against an active stretch of Kennedy Rd. north of the 401, that Leslie Miller came home. Miller had fought for the bloody victory won by Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge on April 9,1917, and he’d sent a memento of that experience home to Canada: a handful of acorns culled from an oak left half-buried on the Vimy battlefield by the devastation of that day.
Miller was a fruit farmer, with an expansive orchard back home on that same plot of land on Kennedy Rd. He had a wealth of knowledge about trees, and a plan: Monty McDonald, Miller’s longtime friend, guesses he shipped the acorns home to his family, with a request that they be planted.
What the gesture may have meant at the time, no one could be sure. “He didn’t know if he would survive to see them,” said McDonald, 69, standing in the morning chill. The war was still raging, and would be for another two years. Miller, twice wounded and returned to battle, faced an uncertain future; the trees could well have become his private war memorial.
But when he did make it back, nine saplings were growing, and Miller would tend them the rest of his life.
On an icy Saturday morning, McDonald surveyed the action in the treetops above with no small degree of satisfaction. The oaks, now towering some nine metres high, are the last, best proof Miller’s life, which ended in 1979.
Miller’s farm is now the site of the Chinese Baptist Church, but his old woodlot where the trees were planted has been left undisturbed. Since last year, McDonald has been determined that the legacy of the Vimy oaks would not stay trapped next to a busy suburban throughway.
As branches tumbled to the forest floor, they were gathered and packaged neatly to be transported to Hamilton’s Connon Nurseries, where they’ll be grafted onto saplings of similar European oaks. In a couple of years, the hope is that as many as 300 new saplings, close cousins of Miller’s trees, will be growing strong.
If it works, half of them will be destined for the brand-new education centre at Vimy Ridge, set to open in time for the battle’s centennial in 2017. As part of the $10 million project, the Vimy Foundation wants to see Miller’s trees planted as a memorial forest growing right next to it. The Vimy Oaks of Scarborough are being harvested in the hopes of taking grafts from some cuttings and returning the offspring to Vimy Ridge, in France.
No oaks survived the battle, and the ridge has been barren ever since. Miller’s trees will change that, serving as a living monument to a defining moment in Canadian history.
“It’s a true repatriation,” said Jeremy Diamond, the foundation’s executive director. “And it’s legacy building. Generations of people from all over will be able to come and see a true piece of Vimy in these trees.”
The education centre is well underway, with $5 million, or roughly half the budget, pledged by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013. Diamond is raising the remaining $5 million through corporate sponsorship and private donations. With $3 million already raised, he’s certain the centre will open in time for the 2017 centennial.
As for the memorial forest, it’s up to the trees. Over the summer, McDonald and his crew of volunteers built acorn traps to protect the precious seeds from hungry squirrels, but the trees weren’t co-operating. By November, the nine trees had produced only a dozen acorns — a result, maybe, of last year’s brutal ice storm.
Grafting branches to living saplings was the next best option — producing not direct descendants, but close cousins. Either way, it’s a fitting tribute to an old friend who couldn’t have guessed where his impulse to extract a few acorns from the blood-soaked ground that day, 98 years ago, would lead.
For McDonald, it’s also a satisfying end to a personal journey. In the 1950's, on a family drive through what was then peaceful farmland, he passed a sign that said “Vimy Oaks Farm.” McDonald’s father, a Second World War veteran, couldn’t resist stopping, and from that day on, he and Miller became close friends. McDonald and his brother worked summers on Miller’s farm, learning about trees and nature.
When McDonald was 17, his father died, and Miller stepped in as a surrogate parent. “I always say that my time with Leslie was like a prep course for life,” he said. “He was the grandfather we never had. And when my father died, he became a real father figure to us. It’s a great tribute to him, after all this time, to see this coming to fruition.”