Every so often even the best writers become too enchanted with a story. They are captivated, and perhaps a wish not to disturb the tale causes them to overlook any faults that might be found by less involved observers.

In his book, Company of Adventurers, Peter C. Newman is at times a very enchanted writer. The book is the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its crucial place in Canadian history. While the work is extensively researched, one prominent anecdote reveals a shining example of enchantment leading to error.

Newman presents the tale in the first page of his foreword. Two men were hiking in northern Saskatchewan far from any other human contact. One night as the pair were preparing their camp they noticed something glinting high in a spruce tree. One climbed the tree and brought down, “a weathered copper frying pan with the letters HBC still clearly stamped on the green patina of its handle. The two men had their dinner and sat around the campfire, cradling and examining the intriguing object, asking themselves why anyone in his right mind would have hung it 40 feet up a black spruce.

“In one of those moments of heightened sensitivity that sometimes telegraph the flash of understanding, the truth dawned on them simultaneously. They broke into smiles that collapsed into belly-pumping laughter. Of course. The frying pan, much like the one they had just used to make their meal, must have been hung on a sapling by some long-gone Hudson’s Bay Company trader. It had inadvertently been left behind the next morning, and the little spruce quietly continued growing-and growing.”

Anyone with any knowledge of trees might already see a problem. Unfortunately Newman didn’t and continued to promote the story, which he saw as a “graphic reminder of how deeply the Hudson’s Bay Company is woven into the memories and dreams of most Canadians.”

Last Nov. 4 Newman again related the anecdote-this time on CBC Radio’s Morningside. Listeners wrote in to point out that the frying pan could not have reached its position in the tree simply through the tree’s growth.

One wrote that “spruce trees, in common with all other trees, grow from the top. A frying pan or anything else for that matter, attached to a branch five feet above the ground 200 years ago would still be five feet above the ground today no matter how high the tree had grown in the meantime.” Another used examples to illustrate the point: “Old tap holes in maple trees don’t migrate skywards. Old telegraph transformers along logging roads stay at transformer height. The tree house that you built as a kid probably seems lower now, not higher.”

Tree experts agree with the letter writers. As Philip Brennan, management forester for York Region of the Ministry of Natural Resources explains, “The way a spruce tree grows is by extending new shoots from buds on the old branches. By late summer, the new shoots have formed their own buds, so they can’t extend anymore. The shoots can’t extend, so the frying pan can’t move.” Brennan says the possibility of the frying pan’s transference from shoot to shoot would be “a small miracle if it happened once,” but this method couldn’t possible carry a frying pan 40 feet up a tree.

At the University of Toronto a similar tall tree story is told in second-year forestry classes. “We use it as a fallacy that people hear,” says Dr. T.J. Blake, associate professor of forestry. “It’s an old wives’ tale that’s been spread around.”

Somewhere in northern Saskatchewan stands a black spruce that was almost a legend.

Every so often even the best writers become too enchanted with a story. They are captivated, and perhaps a wish not to disturb the tale causes them to overlook any faults that might be found by less involved observers.

In his book, Company of Adventurers, Peter C. Newman is at times a very enchanted writer. The book is the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its crucial place in Canadian history. While the work is extensively researched, one prominent anecdote reveals a shining example of enchantment leading to error.

Newman presents the tale in the first page of his foreword. Two men were hiking in northern Saskatchewan far from any other human contact. One night as the pair were preparing their camp they noticed something glinting high in a spruce tree. One climbed the tree and brought down, “a weathered copper frying pan with the letters HBC still clearly stamped on the green patina of its handle. The two men had their dinner and sat around the campfire, cradling and examining the intriguing object, asking themselves why anyone in his right mind would have hung it 40 feet up a black spruce.

“In one of those moments of heightened sensitivity that sometimes telegraph the flash of understanding, the truth dawned on them simultaneously. They broke into smiles that collapsed into belly-pumping laughter. Of course. The frying pan, much like the one they had just used to make their meal, must have been hung on a sapling by some long-gone Hudson’s Bay Company trader. It had inadvertently been left behind the next morning, and the little spruce quietly continued growing-and growing.”

Anyone with any knowledge of trees might already see a problem. Unfortunately Newman didn’t and continued to promote the story, which he saw as a “graphic reminder of how deeply the Hudson’s Bay Company is woven into the memories and dreams of most Canadians.”

Last Nov. 4 Newman again related the anecdote-this time on CBC Radio’s Morningside. Listeners wrote in to point out that the frying pan could not have reached its position in the tree simply through the tree’s growth.

One wrote that “spruce trees, in common with all other trees, grow from the top. A frying pan or anything else for that matter, attached to a branch five feet above the ground 200 years ago would still be five feet above the ground today no matter how high the tree had grown in the meantime.” Another used examples to illustrate the point: “Old tap holes in maple trees don’t migrate skywards. Old telegraph transformers along logging roads stay at transformer height. The tree house that you built as a kid probably seems lower now, not higher.”

Tree experts agree with the letter writers. As Philip Brennan, management forester for York Region of the Ministry of Natural Resources explains, “The way a spruce tree grows is by extending new shoots from buds on the old branches. By late summer, the new shoots have formed their own buds, so they can’t extend anymore. The shoots can’t extend, so the frying pan can’t move.” Brennan says the possibility of the frying pan’s transference from shoot to shoot would be “a small miracle if it happened once,” but this method couldn’t possible carry a frying pan 40 feet up a tree.

At the University of Toronto a similar tall tree story is told in second-year forestry classes. “We use it as a fallacy that people hear,” says Dr. T.J. Blake, associate professor of forestry. “It’s an old wives’ tale that’s been spread around.”

Somewhere in northern Saskatchewan stands a black spruce that was almost a legend.