How old is your oldest neighbor? I bet I can find someone even older in your neighborhood in less time than it takes to answer that question. All I need is to look at the trees in your neighborhood. Trees, the oldest living things on Earth, are an easy way to get to know some of the ecosystem you inhabit.
“Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.” – Bill Vaughn
Adult trees are simple to identify—they’re taller than us—they are probably taller than your home. They are readily distinguishable from other plants—the glorious crown of leaves (or if you happen to view a conifer, their needle raiment covers them from top to nearly bottom), the solid trunk, the basic haecceity of treeness. In other words, even if you don’t know the difference between a tree and a shrub (hint—it generally has to do with size), you won’t mistake a tree for a sunflower or poison ivy—though poison ivy often wraps itself around trees.
Observing animals in motion is thrilling, but they do have the annoying habit of existing outside the realm of our wills—tending to annoy us by moving out of camera or sight range. Trees do not. You’ll never have to say to your seven-year-old, “Quiet! There’s a black maple over there. Don’t scare it away.”
Trees engage our senses and imagination. A search on Amazon.com in the books department with the word “trees” reveals 764,369 entries. How many poems about trees are there? Google failed to give me a clear answer, but I’m sure the number is legion.
How do trees stimulate the imagination? Their sheer massiveness (of many species); the rough or smooth bark, furled, plated, lenticeled, ridged; the variety of leaf shape (sassafras has three on one tree!), size, texture, and color; the food and other products provided from our sylvan neighbors; the animal life they feed and shelter.
What’s not to give us pause about a giant bur oak with gnarled branches high above our heads with leaves rattling in the ornery wind?
Don’t forget—we can climb trees and swing from them. Boring old turf grass is green because it can’t compete with our beloved trees.
If you have children, trees are an easy introduction to local ecology—you may even find, as you get to know them, some trees that don’t belong in your yard.
If you are serious about tree identification (what man isn’t?), then start in the late spring through mid-fall for the easiest time and use this inexpensive guide. If you’ve never encountered a dichotomous key before, try it out on a tree whose identity of which you’re certain. Use it with your children; people are amazed when children demonstrate local knowledge. I know, I’ve seen the reaction of other adults when my daughter or son identify some organism.
If there’s an essential checklist for manhood, I’d say that knowledge of local flora and fauna should be on it. For how else will you survive when the zombie virus is unleashed?
“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beechtree, or a yellow birch,or an old acquaintance among the pines.” – H.D. Thoreau
Previously published on STAND-Magazine
By: Scot F. Martin