I rarely actually hug them, but I do love trees. I enjoy walking along wooded paths and lounging in a hammock suspended between two towering trunks. Listening to the wind move through leaves overhead and feeling the cool of the shade beneath are both activities that bring a smile to my face.
I like knowing trees: knowing their characteristics, their preferences, and, especially as I walk through the woods of north Alabama, what they are. What kind of tree is that? I prefer to know. Trees are all different, and I like to call them by name.
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but for the most part, I’m just a leaf guy. If I can see the leaves, I can usually identify the tree, or at least its family. The oaks, the maples, the beeches, pines, and hickories: I know a lot of them…if I can see their leaves.
Lately though, I’ve been working to learn to identify trees by other properties, specifically their buds, twigs, and bark (insert dogwood joke here).
This is hard for me. It’s hard because I have to slow down and observe closely, and that can be challenging unless I’m in the mood for it.
As is so often the answer to just about everything, I’ve gotten a book on the subject and I’m learning. I’m working with Winter Tree Finder, by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts. It’s a pretty cool little book (it really is just a bit more than a pamphlet) and I’m learning a lot from it.
Recently, I went out to a tree near the school I was working at, book in hand. I kind of had an idea what the tree was, and thought it would be a good first test of my ability to follow the author’s guidance. The book follows an if/then format (okay, it’s actually called a dichotomous key) to guide the reader through the steps necessary to identify a particular subject.
I started with alternating leaf scars, thin twigs, and small terminal buds (those at the end of the twig). That helped me recognize it as an oak. Observing the shape and configuration took me to the point where I was looking for an acorn cap on the ground, and the cap’s characteristics told me I was looking at a red oak. I couldn’t be positive, but I think it worked!
Am I going to master this new skill anytime soon? Well, probably not, but I’m going to keep plugging away at it. Somewhere there’s a cliche about good things taking time, so if you know it, go ahead and say it to yourself now. I am, and I think that’s okay.