Noticing Trees

I’m sitting in a tree house at a friend’s cabin along the Gallatin River near Yellowstone Park in Montana. There is sun filtering through the branches of  pines landing on spots of grass and wild roses , now late in the season, the branches are red spotted with rose hips.  I’m in a tree house.  I didn’t have a tree house when I was a kid though I think I remember my brothers pounding a couple of boards up in the crotch of a maple tree in our back yard.
Yet my childhood was filled with trees.  In the Hoosier Midwest farmland there were maples, oak, hickory, walnut, tulip, cherry, apple and pear and more.  Trees viewed by a child seem tall and permanent. These trees filled my childhood with all kinds of activity.  Trees provided branches for swords, and scepters of power, whirligigs for musical kazoos, nuts for cracking, fruits for treats.  I climbed in trees, sat under trees and sometime read under trees, leaning against the textured trunk for a backrest.

I collected 20 different leaves, pressing them flat and labeling them to identify their uniqueness for an 8th grade science project.  In the branches overhead birds raise their babies, our cats climbed up to terrorize them, and life and death drama appeared right in the middle of a summer day.

Now in my adult life in the Phoenix area I find myself prowling the parking lots in July and August desperately hoping for a bit of shade from a 10’ tree.  I live in a subdivision where two trees per front yard are required. One tree here, another tree just there.  My tree must not grow over into my neighbors land.  In a work life of fluorescent lights trees get pushed away from my connection with nature.

Last May on a road trip from Phoenix to Indianapolis and back I noticed trees.  Traveling through 14 states there were impressive stands of trees along the way, there were tree-lined main streets, single majestic trees alone in a field that made me just stop and stare.

In May the leaves were clean and green, freshly rejuvenated by the change of season.  I suddenly wanted to know their names. I needed to know how there could be so many shapes and forms, flowers and leaves.  I just wanted to be with the trees.

Perhaps in your traveling you may from time to time be outvoted in plan to visit a public garden.  Yet as you move about in your travels you can still notice trees.  From one part of the country to another or even from one part of Arizona to another the trees stand waiting to be noticed.  The tree shape, leaves, bark and seeds are the keys to seeing trees.  Learning the names of trees is an entire field of study with many trees having more than one Latin name and most trees having multiple common names. This makes it very hard to identify a Chestnut Oak or a Sycamore Maple?  Plus people get possessive about their trees there is a “Colorado” blue spruce, a “Sitka” spruce, and there is a Lebanon Cedar & a Monterey Cypress, a Southern Magnolia and a Scotch Pine. Some of these same trees have different names in different areas of the country.

The best time I had with trees recently was in New Harmony, Indiana. New Harmony is what remains of two experiments in communal living in the 1830’s & 40’s where German Lutheran Immigrants formed a self-sustaining community. Located on the Southwestern border of the state with the Wabash River running on the edge of the town there is an abundance of trees.

Trees are everywhere in this small town which is a vibrant community of 1000 permanent residents now affiliated with the University of Southern Indiana conference center and artists retreat maintaining much of the feel and architecture of the old community.  Walking is the preferred form of transportation, and tree-lined streets make it a pleasant process.

Old Sycamores stop you mid step as you first notice their massive trunks with a mosaic of colors in its layered bark.  Then from the trunk you look up into a branching structure that holds a piece of sky.

If you want a bit of nature while traveling and can’t get to a Public Garden try taking a walk on a university campus.  Old universities will have old and beautiful trees.  Arizona State in Tempe has a mini urban forest to explore. Montana State University in Bozeman, made a great walk with flowering crab apples displaying small bright red fruit in the bright green leaves.  Mountain Ash, also known as Rowan, have clusters of red berries alike in many ways to our local piracantha bushes and the birds enjoy them just as much.

Noticing trees in the different seasons keep your travel interesting.  A tunnel of color in the fall over a tree-lined street is a special sight.  A ribbon of ancient cottonwood trees running along a river turning from green to gold in the Fall.

Many times a single tree can be amazing.  Tall, perfectly shaped, standing solo through all kinds of weather it holds its ground.  Some changes affect the tree dramatically when leaves fall to the ground.  Other changes are imperceptible as smooth trunk turns to rough to crackled squares over the years.  Perhaps like people the tree seems the same yet each is unique when we look closer.

originally published


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