In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman takes a personal view of tree ID.
After a cue from John Muir, who preferred the word saunter to hike, I dipped into the largest old-growth tract in Dutchess County New York, the South Woods at Montgomery place in Annandale.
It was called the Spirit Wood by the Indigenous people who occupied the land before the Livingston family bought it in 1802, with its never being touched a stipulation of the sale.
Montgomery Place is famous for the locust trees which grace its arboretum grounds, massive, hundreds of years old.
They are stalwart, magnificent. The gardens could almost knock a person over with their fragrance.
But I found myself more knocked out by the South Woods trail. All around me I saw waves of emerald fern.
And the tangled lace of dead tree blowdowns.
The air smelled like cinnamon. I heard nothing at all but mad birdsong in the branches seventy-five and one hundred feet overhead. There were baby oak groves.
I saw plenty of critter lairs.
A wise old locust stood by the path.
The experience further fueled my excitement in writing about American woodlands.
Researching a book about American forests, I have asked myself: Why does it matter if a person can identify a tree by name? Does that knowledge make the tree any more beautiful? The South Woods could amaze anyone who follows the trail down to the Hudson.
Steps still exist from when the Livingston family built them. I imagined Janet Livingston lifting the hem of her long skirts to dip her privileged toes in the cold river water.
When you hear bird song you need have no compunction to determine whether the call is that of a blue jay or a redwing. As Shakespeare has Juliet say, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” That is true. He was, after all, Shakespeare.
But still, I think it matters a great deal. I recently walked with a couple of urban foresters, Aaron and Russell, in the thick woods of New York City’s Van Cortlandt Park. The Park contains a surprisingly dense 800-acre patch of mature forest that has been deemed “forever wild” and which lies untouched at the very northern tip of the Bronx. Yes, this is New York City.
We were nearby as part of a tree symposium in neighboring Yonkers. We snuck off through a chain link fence that bordered the park during one break in the proceedings to saunter along a shady trail.
Russell said, “Fantastic pignut hickories here!”
I was jealous of his knowledge. And elated when I came to know Carya glabra’s smooth, compound leaves, its tapering trunk, its narrow crown, even more so when I learned some context. The tree’s savory fruits are irresistible to squirrels, who share these urban woodlands with owls and woodchucks, snakes and coyotes and opossums. Also that the tough yet flexible wood made it invaluable to early American settlers who used it for wagon wheels and sulkies. Pignut hickory is stronger, it turns out, than steel.
Sound nerdy? Heard. Perhaps a shade of what in my writerly household we call “rapture of the deep.” Literally, the phrase refers to the effects of inert gas narcosis, when scuba divers breathing compressed air exhibit symptoms of intoxication. Such euphoria compromises the ability to think straight.
I want my book to offer readers a personal, primal, history-nuanced connection to trees and, in a larger sense, to forests. Let’s develop a new, intimate, vital relationship with the specimens that we see all around us every day and yet that we sometimes take for granted.
Spending time writing at the artists’ retreat in the Hudson Valley called Catwalk, it struck me as simple: People might not be getting all they need to understand, all they’d love to know about our woodlands.
I worked in a garden shed, a little spot filled with dusty, magical old objects.
Farm implements from when this estate had a different life.
There was perfect light.
And a lawn outside planted with gracious trees. Other Fellows dropped in to visit. I toured filmmaker Charlotte around the property that was visible to all every day but had secrets as yet unplumbed.
We talked as we walked. Charlotte observed details. The shaggy bark of the shagbark hickory, a perfect example of iconicity.
New leaves of a white oak, each fresher than the next.
The heavy hanging catkins of a black walnut – did you know that its roots produce a chemical which caused the failure of that ruined old vegetable whose remains you see here?
The so delicate flower of the Chinese fringe tree.
A weeping beech, its silvery bark glowing under a fall of branches.
Charlotte said, The branches of the trees look like an old man’s limbs.
We saw the elegant stitches on a cherry’s trunk called lenticels; no other tree has anything exactly like them. We examined the stone wall that bordered it all.
They remained intact from the nineteenth century, when farmers cleared the trees and removed the rocks from fields and pastures, and expert masons assembled them without mortar.
Being on this estate I found myself inspired by commonplace things: chipmunks that scurried into a hidden corner of the shed to store nuts, a robin that hunted for inchworms just outside, the hummingbird hovering over the salvia, dipping its beak quickly but with religious fervor.
Down the way in the catfish pond, a school of whiskered fry bent on survival spooked when I came close, diving down into the drink below the dock.
The head of a cattail… there are, I believe as I write this, no words to describe it.
A mama turtle diligently dug out a hole using her tough hind legs. Later she’d drop in the white jelly bean eggs.
A spider’s intricate web.
Is there anything more pristine than bracts of dogwood? Perhaps I do have rapture of the deep. But it is rapture nonetheless.