The leaves are down and the snow hasn’t yet come to stay: it’s stick season in Vermont. When you look at the woods, all you see is sticks–gray, taupe, brown–sticking up out of the ground.
Until recently, trees were basically sticks to me, the only exceptions being the gingko in our front yard, since gingko leaves look like no other leaves on the planet, and the Bradford pears that line our street (Bradford pears in bloom stink like carrion). And yet I professed to love trees–their shape, their colors, their hospitality to birds, the way they talk to each other via underground fungal networks, and their helpful habit of clearing carbon out of the air so we humans can breathe.
If we let them, trees may yet save the planet, so I thought I owed it to them to get to know them better. But I had no idea what I was getting into: from my initial reading and random wanderings in the woods, looking at sticks, I have concluded that trees are almost impossible to identify. A tree’s appearance varies depending on whether it is young or old, growing by itself or in a wood, in dry or wet soil, in a warm or cold place, and whether it is a wild tree, a cultivar, a hybrid, or a clone. Its aspect is the result of an ongoing dialogue between its DNA and its environment. According to The Sibley Guide to Trees, specialists often get into arguments as to what constitutes a species, a subspecies, or a “form.”
This is natural selection at work. Whereas it is crucial to a female goldfinch in the spring that the males of her species be bright yellow and wear that little black beret, so she can mate with one of them instead of with some random sparrow, trees, lacking eyes, don’t care what their fellow trees look like. Instead, they recognize each other by pollen structure, sap chemistry, chromosome numbers, and that kind of thing.
Despite all this, I have resolved to persevere. If nothing else, I am learning to pay attention to trees, as opposed to passing under them with my eyes firmly fixed on whatever tragicomedy happens to be playing inside my head. It’s high time I shifted focus from my repetitive, often whiny inner dramas and attended to the maddeningly inventive, ever-changing world outside my skull. What better way than by walking through the forest, that temple of uncertainty, staring at sticks?
You know how, when you are picking up your dog’s poop with a bag you always pick up some leaves too? Now, when I do that for Bisou, I find myself muttering “white oak, basswood, sugar maple…” Who knows if I’m right? The leaves of a single tree may have different shapes, depending on whether they are on the lower or upper branches. Shuffling through the leaf litter, peering at tree trunks, I thought I had found a fool-proof method for identifying the bitternut hickory: its bark seemed to form rough diamond shapes. But it turns out that diamond-shaped bark ridges are also a distinguishing mark of the white ash and, for all I know, a dozen other species.
With trees as with everything else, the more you learn, the more you find there is to learn. The deeper we look, the more depths open to our gaze. We can never stand on firm ground, reach rock bottom, or know anything totally for sure. Like a centuries-old oak, reality branches on and on, leading us into the infinitely small (cells, molecules, atoms, quarks) or the infinitely large (planets, stars, nebulae), and the only possible response is one of dizzy gratitude to the universe for planting us in the middle of its ever shifting mysteries.