For most singer-songwriters within the folk genre, the creation of a new album is the culmination of a journey, be it physical or spiritual.
David Newland’s new project, In Search of Lost Trees, is based on a 4,000-kilometre journey to revisit the trees he planted as a tree planter in the early nineties, a trip he took with his son, their dog, and their beat-up 2010 Kia Soul.
He performs it this Sunday at 3 p.m. at Trinity United Church in Cobourg
Long before the concept of making folk music had ever taken root with David, he worked a summer job in Thunder Bay as a tree planter. He was fresh off an unfulfilling term at McGill University and was in the midst of applying for other post-secondary programs. Where he hadn’t yet found a community in university, David found it tree planting.
“Most of us were university students, or artists, or musicians, world travelers, alternative thinkers,” David said, reflecting on the friends he made in Thunder Bay.
“I mean, there was still kind of a lot of those vibes around in the early ’90s. That was the experience for me. It was incredibly difficult physical work, but there was a community, and we practiced living in that community, and we had a lot of fun.”
To David, the lifestyle of tree planting was his tangible way of making a difference. Thirty-three years later, the memory of the trees was one that still hadn’t left him.
“I had a map of the first trees that I ever planted — of their location. That’s a very unusual thing to have. You wouldn’t usually have that tree planting, but a crew boss had given it to me, and I had kept it and plotted it.”
Although his experiences in planting only lasted six years, David had always been interested in revisiting the trees he planted in Thunder Bay all those years ago.
“I was always an outdoorsy kid. I always cared about and loved trees. And I think in the idealism of that time, of the early 90’s, I was devastated by the forest practices that I saw.” David said.
“When you’ve seen the butchery that is done to the forest in a clear cut, I think it makes you a bit of a caretaker. It sure made me one. I felt responsible for those trees, and I wanted to know how at least some of them were doing.”
‘When they find a shipwreck, they tend to find it in a library first’
David said he plotted the 4,000-kilometre trip on Google Maps, booking it and then proposing the journey to his son, Jasper, as a “crazy work trip.” They took the dog, a canoe and plenty of music.
“It was the two of us with a stack of CDs and this beat up old 2010 Kia Soul and lots of time on our hands so we could talk about things, and I could turn Jasper onto music that I love, including people from up there, like Rodney Brown and Ian Tamblyn. I thought it was great. There’s nothing I’d rather do in a way,” David said.
Because of how remote the trees were, David said locating them was important, but getting to them was another matter. He said finding the trees was like finding a shipwreck.
“When they find a shipwreck, they tend to find it in a library first,” he said. “You don’t just randomly go diving in a spot and hope for a Spanish galleon.”
Even with the help of Google to find his Spanish galleon, he added, there was still plenty of risk to the trip.
“Google Earth doesn’t update every year,” David said. “The most recent images are 2018, and you could still see bush roads in there. But you don’t know if this year, they went and cut down the whole block that your trees are in or if they had burned over 15 years ago, or if the roads that I could see were now too overgrown or too potholed or anything else.”
To deal with this, David said he had developed at least three different plans to get to the trees, including renting a nearby cottage or hiking 10 kilometres in from a bush road. They settled on driving as close as possible to the trees via the nearly-abandoned forest roads before tackling the rest on foot.
“I found a road that was well, to be honest, most people wouldn’t drive down it even in a truck, but we drove down it in the 2010 Soul,” David said. They drove five or six more kilometres, he explained, until soon the only option became to hike.
“We just got on our bug jackets, and we hiked in,” he said.
“We were on the road the whole time. It was good footing, not really heavy duty hiking. We got wet from the dew on all the overgrowth on the road, and it was very buggy.”
In the end, the adversity paid off, and David and Jasper found themselves face-to-fir with the trees that David had planted in the ’90s.
It was a profound experience, he said.
“It doesn’t look anything like what I remembered.”
‘It doesn’t look anything like what I remembered’
David said it was hard to formulate takeaways at the time, comparing it to the experiences of those who reached the top of Mount Everest.
“They get up there, and what do they do? They just have this big achievement, and you can’t really take it all in. You spend a couple of minutes, you take some pictures, you high five, and you move on because you’ve still got to get back, right? And it was a little bit like that for me too.”
He said there was an element of sadness to it as he took in the disconcerting size of the trees all around him and the smell of burning wood in the air from far-away wildfires.
“I know a lot of mills have closed down, and I know how rough that is for those northern towns. But we don’t seem to have shown a lot of signs that we’ve given up cutting down trees to make toilet paper and newspaper and all the things that we’re addicted to. And that’s a sad thing,” David said.
“Back in those days, we hoped that our trees would never be cut down.”
With the culmination of the journey resulting in profound and “mixed” feelings, David would begin to integrate these emotions into music for his new project, In Search of Lost Trees, a concert for the Northumberland Learning Connection speaker series on The Power of Trees.
“I’ve just sort of shown my son this piece of my life and demonstrated that something powerful can happen in the time of a lifespan,” David said.
“There’s been time in my life to grow a forest, and that’s what landed with me, and I think it landed with Jasper too. But this is why you need songs because it’s hard to put into words what that moment was like.”
In his project, David hopes to tell the stories of all kinds of lost trees, not just the ones he visited. He said there are all kinds of trees with wich people are hoping to rekindle their connection, whether it’s the memory of a tree standing in a childhood front yard or a family tree that was surrendered long ago.
“If you think about one of the sensitive topics that’s in the mix here, it’s the Residential School experience. Those family trees were lost and cut off in ways that sort of resemble what was done to the forest.”
Through music, David said he is able to explore a lot of his findings from the journey emotionally, without being required to come to any logical conclusions.
“It’s an expressionistic approach to the topic of trees and of loss and of connection and of family and memory and this concept that people are talking about a lot now,” he added.
He hopes that his story and the message that he delivers through his music will make a difference in the way that other people view the trees, not just up north but all around them.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a hopeful project, because what it does is it puts ideas in people’s hands — I hope — about what they can do locally to be more attentive to trees – to live in relationship with trees as opposed to just seeing them as objects that fall down in a storm or get cut down when you need some firewood.”
David Newland’s concert In Search of Lost Trees will take place on Nov. 12 at 3 p.m. at Trinity United Church, as part of the Northumberland Learning Connection show, The Power of Trees.
To purchase tickets click here: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/northumberland-learning-connection/events/the-power-of-trees/
To find out more about David, click here: https://www.davidnewland.com/