A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Jane and I went on a “Tree Walk” at our favorite local nature center. The husband-and-wife team who led the walk opened by reading a passage from their favorite book about trees. I was so enchanted by this bit of writing that I spent a long-hoarded gift certificate on a copy of the book, Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees. (I believe he has written a Western North America version as well.)
Here’s the passage, taken from Peattie’s introduction:
Wherever you live, wherever you tramp or travel, the trees of our country are wondrously companionable, if you have a speaking acquaintance with them. When you have learned their names, they say them back to you, as you encounter them—and very much more, for they speak of your own past experience among them, and of our nation’s forest life.
Jane and I recalled these words as we hiked along a wooded path on the fringes of our neighborhood the other day—recalled them somewhat haphazardly, above the strained rattle of Wonderboy’s stroller. A friend of mine gave me a stroller her kids had outgrown, an amazingly rugged jogging stroller, the mountain bike of strollers, the Ahnold of strollers. She bought it in New Zealand, where they take their hiking seriously. I waited impatiently through the winter, eager to take this Strollinator out for a spin. I stocked its basket (which is approximately the size of a Volkswagen) with water bottles, a blanket, diapers, sketchbooks, paint sets. Nature walks, here we come.
Unfortunately it turned out that Robostroller had a flat. We discovered this about halfway down the driveway on the morning I’m talking about, the morning of our first big nature hike of the season. Hastily we formulated a backup plan. The Incredible Hulk of Strollers went back into the garage, and Wonderboy had to settle for a ride in the wimpy umbrella stroller I keep in the minivan, the one with the blue plastic wheels. SuperStroller has giant black rubber wheels with inch-deep tread, wheels that could crush the mall stroller with one roll. The umbrella stroller was complaining about the stray bits of gravel on our paved street long before we reached the end of our development, where the dirt-and-stones nature trail begins.
So there we were bumping our way down the steep path through the trees, and Jane and I were looking for the trees we’d learned to identify on the Tree Walk last month. We can spot a hickory now, not just shagbark but all kinds of hickories, because of the diamond-like patterning of their bark. We hoped for a hornbeam—Jane was enchanted by the naturalist’s description of the hornbeam’s trunk as being “like muscles with no skin.” It’s true, hornbeams don’t have smooth, round trunks; they ripple in slender, wiry curves, like a sinewy arm.
“Mommy, look, a holly!” Jane cried. Beanie wanted to know where, and Rose was proud that she could identify it even though she hadn’t been with us on the Tree Walk.
“Poison ivy!” shouted Bean, not to be outdone at botanical identifications.
“There’s a beech,” Jane told her sisters. “You can tell by the light brown leaves still hanging to it. Beeches like to hold their leaves all winter.” She launched into a lengthy description of the woolly aphids that feed on the sap of a giant beech at the nature center. The Tree Walk guides had pointed out the tree, but it was still too early in the season, too cold, and there weren’t any aphids that day. Jane and I saw them last summer, though, during the butterfly walks which are the highlight of her year. The Tree Walk guides talked about how the aphids look like wisps of quivering cotton on the branches. They did not mention the harvester caterpillar which feeds on them, making it the only carnivorous species of caterpillar. Jane was more than happy to chime in with that information. Whenever we go on these guided hikes at the nature center, it’s like she is E.T. at the moment of reunion with his fellow extraterrestrials. These are her people, these marvelous woodsy folks who know all about caterpillars and salamanders and wood poppies and hornbeams.
Peattie’s introduction to Natural History of Trees goes on to say, “But a name is only a door open to knowledge; beyond lie the green ways of growing and, too, all that makes a tree most interesting and important to man. Almost every tree in our sylva has made history, or witnessed it, or entered into our folkways, or usefully become a part of our daily life.”
Right now Wonderboy is at an age when much of our conversation is about the names of things. He’s been in hearing aids for five months or so now, which means his “listening age” for comprehending spoken language is about the same as a five-month-old’s. We name everything for him, with speech and with sign language, and his world is expanding at a breathtaking rate. And for me, this walk through the woods was full of that same kind of magic connection. The names of these trees are, as Peattie so beautifully puts it, open doors inviting me to relationships, to stories, to a world roots and nests and secrets.
I was not made for this, griped Wonderboy’s stroller, as we rattled our way along the path.
I was born for this, said the look in Jane’s eyes.
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