The Percy Tree

Following a gruelling search, I moved into this apartment as a massage therapy student in 2011. Months before, I had returned home from two years living in Costa Rica. You all know it as being the place I taught yoga retreats, meditated in nature, volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary and lived off the grid with an indigenous community founded by women. I’ve shared a lot about that time and what a life-changer it was for me to venture off on my own like that. What I haven’t spoken of is the love affair that made me come back to Canada.

I met León, which is Spanish for lion, while volunteering at the wildlife sanctuary—he was the contractor. It started on our lunch breaks when he would come and sit on the deck half underneath my hammock. He’d speak quietly while holding my hand and hanging on my every poorly constructed Spanish sentence and mispronounced word. He had me at “Kreeeeees,” shortening my name with a familiarity that even my closest friends hadn’t, and drawing out the Spanish pronunciation of the i. Still courting me, he took me to a party thrown by the volunteers at their off-grid residence up the hill. León quickly got black-out drunk with the group despite my obvious disapproval of the direction the night was headed. It upset me so much that I walked the 300 meters down the hill from the farm in the pitch black of night, back to my rancho alone. I had previously been terrified of that walk, but my fear of wildcats was no match for the adrenaline that boiled inside of me that night. I stormed off terrified, angry and without a flashlight. It should have ended then, but he’d already hooked me with his charm.

The short story is that we stayed together for another year. I felt loved by him in a way I had never experienced. He was communicative, sensitive, emotionally present. He made me laugh. When we went out for the evening, he loaned me his feet, rhythm and confidence, while dancing me with pride around the dance floor. I smiled with him until my face hurt. He also stood me up and let me down in devastating ways. With León I felt seen—and dismissed. The decision to leave arrived slowly but it wasn’t hard to make. I knew I’d be forever waiting for him, hating myself, if I didn’t. 

So, I was both empowered and heartbroken arriving in Ottawa. I’d been gone from this city for 13 years and it felt like a failure to be back in a place I thought I’d left for good. For the first year and a half, immersed in massage school, I made do. Initially sleeping in a basement on loan, then on a single mattress on the floor of an apartment in a neighbourhood I hated, and a roommate that never had a chance given the state of my heart.

When I made the decision to take the risk, settle, and find a home, The Percy Tree welcomed and witnessed me root for the first time since I moved away for college when I was 19. The criteria for my new apartment were a short list of amenities: laundry on site, central location and outdoor space. Check, check, check. It felt so good to be living alone again. 

The Percy Tree was a giant presence on my street. It towered over the house and my top floor apartment, shading the deck and making my three-season patio a private oasis filled with birdsong and buzzing cicadas. I always said when the tree was gone, it would be time for me to move on.

During our 11th spring together, a derecho (Spanish for “straight”), beelined it across the province and right through The Percy Tree, ripping off a huge limb, laying it across my deck and onto the roof of the house. I was filming through the glass as it happened, captivated by the green sky and sideways rain. The volume of the wood splintering and giving way shook the house, and that was before it even made contact. Trees were down all across Ontario and weeks passed before the city arrived to remove our casualty. Looking out onto the deck, the sight of the bright jagged innards of The Percy Tree pushing down on the half-collapsed railing and gouging out a section of roof, shifted something inside of me. Have you ever heard the sound of a living tree break? It’s gutting. 

Six weeks after, late on a still, dry night, a loud crack initiated a tremor through my apartment. My first thought was the tree, but it stood tall as I jumped from my bed and approached the glass. I didn’t see it until I stepped outside to peer down into the street—a second great limb, dead on the road. This one was hollowed, brown and spongy most of the way through. A small crew with a chainsaw and shredder arrived in the middle of the night, quickly clearing away all evidence of our loss.

I bought a patio umbrella and affixed it to the now leaning posts of the deck, determined to continue enjoying my penthouse patio. I planted things that required full-sun and put up a privacy screen—sitting outside I was now exposed from above and below. The sun bounced off the bright white siding and glass doors of the house, rendering my umbrella mute. The birds and cicadas moved away. 

It’s just a tree.

The slumlord sent thier handyman to manually push the railing of the deck back towards straight. The gouge in the roof remained unattended until after the first snowfall more than six months later, when a tarp got wrapped around the lip of the roof, serving only to make the place look like a pending demolition. I had come to expect toasty warm winters as the heat of the house rose to the peak inside my living room, but the frozen air convection above the ceiling had me in gloves for months.

Just as spring was beginning to bud, an ice-storm took branches off of pretty much every tree in the city. I walked to work that day listening to chainsaws, cracking ice and falling tree extremities. It’s probably obvious where this story is headed but I was delighted to see The Percy Tree standing majestically over the house when I arrived home that day. That evening, as I sat in the living room with Floyd The Cat, dozens of smaller branches crashed down on the house at regular intervals. Crystallized fingers with the tight red buds of spring, reflecting light, disguising the rage of nature with her beauty. I moved the couch across the living room in anticipation of one of the three remaining limbs crashing through the roof. The weight of the ice was more than she could handle, and for the third time in less than a year, that sound. This time followed by the gentle rain of thousands of crystals. A passing car got licked by the periphery of the third giant fall and miraculously, not a single person was hurt in any of The Percy Tree’s fractures. The city came by each time a limb fell, trimmed the tree and deemed her safe. Selfishly, I was pleased but grew to fear her constant threat. 

Thin and off balance, The Percy Tree now shaded a small section of the house for only an hour or two by the time the sun crossed the sky from south to west. Sitting on the deck was like being in the zoo—people could not help but stare upwards as they wandered past. The house, with only half a tree, was an eyesore. Everyone agreed. This space held me through a lot over the past 12 years, attaching me to it, but the thinning of The Percy Tree was preparing me also, to let go. When the giant red X was spray painted onto her trunk, I felt both relieved and eviscerated. Her massive limbs, each the size of a tree, were broken off and cremated at random hours when I just happened to be at home to watch. I was torn over whether or not I could witness the final forced removal of that great trunk. 

Under The Percy Tree, I did all the things that nature does. I expanded and contracted to the same rhythm, rooting by her example. Life is hard. There is constant grief and celebration. The branches of life, from trunk to bud, weigh more than I can fathom, yet they grow in a way that creates balance for the whole. When the first one was ripped away, the intelligence of nature gave way for the second dying limb to release its grip and restore equilibrium, perhaps. 

There was a five-year stretch where there was no turn-over of tenants among the trio of apartments.  The three of us got to know one another through the sounds we made and the schedules we kept. We fed each other’s cats when someone was away. Apartment one moved out first, a change that was hard to adapt to. The new tenant brought unfamiliar sounds and strong chemical laundry smells. They didn’t last, but their replacement was worse. A couple, who littered every inch of land surrounding the house and refused to lock the entrance door. They made us long for the smell of detergent by infusing the house with the pungent aroma of cat urine. When they left, the apartment sat empty for months, making me the only tenant home most of the time because apartment two had temporarily vacated as our city was under occupation of the Freedom Convoy—assholes—she never came back. I didn’t hate having the place to myself but the uncertainty of who would move in next, weighed on me. 

On a beautiful spring day, arriving home late, I rounded the corner on my bike and was greeted by the giant absence of The Percy Tree. The house stood bare, with gouged roof and green tarp. Bent siding and leaning fire escape. Its dilapidated appearance hid well the sanctuary that was inside my apartment but even that was fading. While the turf war between me and the raccoons started out as comical 3 AM water fights on the deck, their destruction of the roof was just another problem ignored for too long as water dripped through the light fixture and onto my bed for months. Rats died regularly inside the locked foundation beneath the house. Their corpses would rot, filling the house with the rank smell of death. It took me 2 years of on/off episodes to break through the slumlord’s denial of our claims, forcing them to come and smell it for themselves. The skylights leaked when it rained. The kitchen sink in apartment two would back up anytime the wash machine was used, flooding the apartment below if the stopper was accidentally left in the sink. Now the smell of mould hits you as soon as you walk into the house. But the rent is cheap. 

Once the tree exposed the true shape of the house, it also exposed how contrasting it was for me to continue living here. When I moved in, I was broke and broken hearted. I wasn’t sure where I was headed but this apartment, despite all its flaws, held me through some really important years. While I strived for stability, it wasn’t until I moved here that I began to experience what that really was. But stability, it turns out, isn’t about staying still. In the time it took for The Percy Tree to be brought to the ground, a human moulting inside unit three had already begun. My tenancy would be the final rotting limb to give way. 

Moving on from this chapter has been much harder than I could have anticipated. Sometimes a presence as massive as The Percy Tree has to crumble, one symbolic limb at a time, before life reveals that it truly could not have been any other way.

10 thoughts on “The Percy Tree

  1. I truly enjoyed this read. You have done a lot since we graduated from graphics. All the best with your move and I look forward to reading about the next chapter in your amazing life. ❤️

  2. The Percy Tree touched my heart, beautifully written, promise me you will come down to Sydney to visit ♥️

  3. “But stability, it turns out, isn’t about staying still.”

    Your posts are always so beautiful and raw. Hope you’ve created another sanctuary

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