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Talking with trees

Urban environmental artist Lesia Mokrycke has developed a database of trees in Hamilton that are older than the city itself. 

Lesia Mokrycke is telling the stories of the city’s old-growth trees.

Hamilton is home to oak trees believed to be more than 300 years old, including some along the shoreline in Confederation Park. There are also many shagbark hickories, maples and elms. 

“These trees are remnants of the Carolinian forest and an ecosystem that hasn’t been disturbed. They are irreplaceable. They are monumental and impressive,” says Mokrycke.

The database includes 1,557 trees and that number continues to grow as areas of the city, including Dundas and Ancaster, are examined. Mokrycke is including trees that are older than the 177 years of the city itself.

“I’ve been shocked by how many people, hundreds of people, have contacted me to report old trees. A lot of people care about old trees.”

In fact, Mokrycke says the majority of long-surviving trees are on private property. Many are on the west and east Mountain, at the base of the escarpment, and in the downtown area.

“Hamiltonians have been responsible for preserving them. People have strong emotional connections to these trees and are acting as stewards for them. That’s the beautiful part of this story.”

This began as a research project when Mokrycke was a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lesia Mokrycke is cataloguing Hamilton's old-growth trees. PHOTO: Marta Hewson

“I was looking for a way to talk about climate through something more visceral. I settled on trees. It’s something people can touch and see when talking about climate.”

Mokrycke launched a Hamilton studio in 2021 called Tropos that works on projects combining landscape architecture, art and the environment. It also houses the Urban Forest Lab, which is building the tree inventory.

Mokrycke is working with the City of Hamilton to follow up an online exhibit last year called Monument Trees. A second phase beginning in November adds four new heritage sites where ancient trees are growing. 

The Urban Forest Lab will also host an exhibit in the Lister Block from mid-January to the end of April that will feature video, sound and photography.  The hope is to raise awareness of – and appreciation for – these old trees.

“The more we pave and the more we take down trees, the more we will struggle later with floods and erosion. We can make different decisions.”