A Lifelong passion for trees

Wolf Illing shown with two of the red maples he planted in November 2011, photographed in November 2018. The leaves turn brilliant red, then orange. Photo: Jennifer Humphries

By Jennifer Humphries

I didn’t know Wolf Illing when he sent me two photographs in September 2017, “before” and “after” views of the ancient Bebb’s Oak in the Arboretum. Having read my columns in the Glebe Report, he knew I’d be interested. You may remember the windstorm that swept over the city on September 27, 2017 and in a matter of minutes tore out branches and entire trees. This event has paled in memory since the tornadoes of September 2018 that devastated homes and forests in Ottawa, Gatineau and across the region.

I was intrigued by Illing’s photos but didn’t get a chance to reach out to him until last autumn. We had a good conversation then about his stand of six red maples, which he planted in 2011 to replace a single large Norway maple that was storm-damaged that year. We spoke again this April. He had sent me a link to his impressive portfolio of tree photos taken in Ottawa and on his travels with his wife Anne in the Americas, Europe and Australia, and I wanted to learn more about what motivated him to seek out and photograph trees.

In some ways Illing’s is a classic immigration story. Now in his 80s, he came to Canada as a 20-year-old in 1952. A serendipitous meeting – hitchhiking, actually – with an Ontario Lands and Forests employee led to a job replanting a burnt-out area of forest near Stonecliffe, off Highway 17 between Ottawa and North Bay. There he planted thousands of native Eastern White Pines, now the province’s arboreal emblem. After finishing university he became an econometrician. He was one of the founding staff of the Economic Council of Canada (which was transferred in 1988 to Industry Canada), then worked in the federal government and later in the private sector. But while his career was in economics, Illing’s passion for trees and the environment have shaped his personal life, which has included co-founding Nakkertok Ski Club and Ottawa River Runners.

Wolf and Anne Illing visited Stonecliffe to see the pines he planted in 1952 nearly 50 years ago. Clearly they were thriving. Photo: Martin Illing

“Regarding Bank Street, where most of the trees are either struggling or dying, the width of the sidewalks isn’t conducive to trees.”

Illing told me that his love of trees goes back even further to his native Sudetenland. During his childhood this was a borderland of southern Germany; it is now part of the Czech Republic. “My grandfather’s two brothers were arborists responsible for caring for the trees on the estates of the Duke of Esterhazy during the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” he said. “When they retired, my great-uncles came to live with us and planted orchards and oaks and lilacs on our land. I grew up with these trees and always cared for them.

“I’m fascinated by the tree creations of Mother Nature,” he said. That’s why he planted his six native red maples and why he bikes regularly through the Arboretum, stopping to take snapshots of particularly beautiful trees along the way. Sometimes the trees he photographs are curiosities – quirks of nature. The specimens in his tree portfolio include some that are strangely shaped and not things of beauty, but to Illing they are all exotic and exciting.

Illing plants and preserves trees on his own property primarily for aesthetics: “A building may be beautiful but it’s more so with trees. They add considerably to the character of the architecture.” In the Glebe, whose hallmark is its early 20th century homes, treed streets and properties are an essential element of the look and feel.

I asked Illing for his sense of the current state of Glebe trees. “It’s not a disaster,” he said, “but we certainly need more.” Regarding Bank Street, where most of the trees are either struggling or dying, he said the width of the sidewalks isn’t conducive to trees. It could be different if the wires were buried. But for now, greenery such as hanging plants (the Glebe BIA has been providing these for several years) and possibly storefront planters make the most sense. It’s better this than seeing saplings fail due to poor conditions and lack of care.

Illing would like to see greater awareness on the part of homeowners and developers of the aesthetic and environmental value of trees. He encourages not only planting but preserving and nurturing existing trees during renovations and around new builds.

Not surprisingly, Illing is a member of both the Heritage and the Planning committees of the Glebe Community Association, in keeping with his passion for this older neighbourhood and his concern to see it thrive and stay green into the next generation. He’s lived on Clemow Avenue since 1975 so he’s had four decades to engage with the community and understand its culture. He espouses respect for the past, but looks to the future. “We need to plan and plant for the future with a sense of our heritage,” he said.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association and a member of the city’s working group for the Urban Forest Management Plan. You can reach her at environment@glebeca.ca

Bebb’s Oak in the Arboretum: Before the windstorm of September 27, 2017.
Bebb’s Oak in the Arboretum: After the storm. The oak survives to this day, a testament to the resilience of trees. Photos: Wolf Illing
Share this