In rain and light

© Gary Joe Wolf

© Gary Joe Wolf

 

Send me a leaf

 

Send me a leaf, but from a little tree

That grows no nearer your house

Than half an hour away. For then

You will have to walk, you will get strong and I

Shall thank you for the pretty leaf.

 

—Bertolt Brecht

(Translated, from the German, by David Constantine)

 

Tonight, tonight. The streets are slicked in rain, smooth like a bathing elephant’s skin. There’s the sweetness of being alive in the wet, the beautiful feeling of washed air magically coupled with the rich wildness of fall colors. Honeyed yellows deepening to red. Marmelade. Occasional veins of magenta. Some chartreuse, even paler than usual in the street lamp glow. Leaves.

Downtown there are ashes everywhere. Not from fires, per se, but the leaves of those street trees are lit in a burning yellow, loosing halos to the earth below. They lay in crowds around the tiny squares of soil surrounded by cement. I love the young things lining sidewalks and medians, dappled in their golden leaflets, but here in my neighborhood I am lucky and rich with ancient oaks and sugar maples instead, all shimmering in chiaroscuro.

The aesthetics of rainy nights never fail to floor me. The shine, the sounds, the solitude. Tonight I walked, wearing heels from a night out, click clacking down one street to another. A skunk was out–my sole companion, glowing white as it browsed one of the area’s larger lawns. It was a quiet, quick, nonchalant creature, not remotely interested in me or a car that sped and splashed by. They die that way, thinking that they can fend off station wagons by spraying them. But this skunk just stayed on the lawn, nibbling in the headlights as I watched under my hood with hands in my pockets. Eventually I turned away, my mind in the night, my heart and soul rinsed in warm weather and beauty.

I’m riding with the trees through transition. Last week I left Allandale Farm, the place where I’ve spent the last three years of my life. In August I’d begun my new position as the horticultural manager at Flora Explora, a landscaping company that deals primarily in Chinatown and Southie properties. It’s a big change, and I’m grateful for it. Leaving the farm and taking up with Flora is giving me the opportunity to learn about botanical entrepreneurialism as well as the space to hone my landscape design skills. And it’s given me a sweeter schedule, one that leaves me feeling more solidly on my feet. I wake up remembering my dreams. I’m alive in phases, in the changing moon and lengthening nights.

This evening as I strolled I stood below a ledge-grown maple whose roots bulged hiphigh. I felt a gnarl and raised my face, my eyes climbing crevices and arms toward the canopy. I listened to the sound of leaves, green but brightening toward yellow. Fallen raindrops fell again to lower leaves and limbs. My eyes were full of light, of the chlorophyll that, come morning, will keep working until it is all shut down and captured within wood til spring’s great bud break. I looked up, my chest full of light, my mind racing with life, rushing with the knowledge of all the ecology seen and unseen before me. My heart felt like the set of Ferngully. I felt like Ferngully. It was magic, and it was a tree, and it was two blocks away, and it is October.

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MudSong Five: These things astonish

 

Pastoral
—William Carlos Williams

The little sparrows
hop ingenuously
about the pavement
quarreling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.

Meanwhile,
the old man who goes about
gathering dog-lime
walks in the gutter
without looking up
and his tread
is more majestic than
that of the Episcopal minister
approaching the pulpit
of a Sunday.
These things
astonish me beyond words.

 

An invitation; or, the surrendering to the sweetness of sounds

Central Park. Source: The Central Park Facebook page.

Winter in Central Park. Source.

 

I wanted this winter. I did snow dances in my mind, longing for a season of magical decadence a la Phillip Pullman or Mark Helprin. There would be skiing, snowshoeing, tracking, hours in the woods, pots of piping tea.

We’ve been graced with it all. There’s been snow like cake, like sugar, like flecks of starlings swinging. I’ve celebrated it.

I’ve also been inside. A lot. The hours spent in the neighborhood, unable to leave because of bald tires and bad roads, have lent themselves to reams of metaphors, research logs, and seed schedules. Wool’s been spun, literally and figuratively. The piles of photographs and shoes and sweaters in my closet have been swept up and tidied. I’ve been trapping mice, or attempting to, devastated over the tiny broken bodies but unwilling to attempt live traps in the bitter cold.

More than anything my hands have been perched over letters and letting them go in rushes. Fingers form the botanical and pinyin names of Chinese herbs. They jot the number of days it takes for a seed to grow girthy enough to be plucked from a nursery and transplanted into the yawning earth.

I flutter and fret, hover and strike, stacking syllables into prose and roaming for words better than those already chosen. The more I write the more deeply I fall in love with the craft and practice.

Perhaps paradoxically, the more I sit the happier I am to not be a full-time writer. Chairs and the sedentary get me twitching after awhile. My mind is worked to exhaustion and I long for the feeling of a shovel in my hand and a garden of possibility before me. (A real garden, not one in metaphor.)

2nd Murmur no. 23, 2006 (Richard Barnes / Foley Gallery)
Starlings. 2nd Murmur no. 23, 2006 (Richard Barnes / Foley Gallery)

Now, on this last day of February, my sitting days are about to end. Beginning next week I’ll be back at the farm, my life returning to the old, familiar cycles of sowing, transplanting, harvesting and selling.

In my mind, winter ends after this weekend. It’s already begun being ushered out by the cardinals and blue jays singing in the morning. I love the cold blue of these days as they are warmed with song, where even the house sparrows are lovely to listen to. Any bird sound makes me feel lighter and alive and longing to shed another layer.

Because of the sweet madness of March, marked by all the plans and work and the water and warm muscle that fuels it, I’m going to concentrate on poetry for a while. There won’t be as much time for the prose of blogging (especially given all of the other writing I’m doing; the editing of my book, being a contributing writer for Herbstalk, and more). And, I love poetry. I pick it apart like a buzzard. I gulp down what I love and stay away from everything else.

So please join me in a month of poems. The theme: birds. The alternative theme? Anything mud-luscious and everything puddle-wonderful. There’s a lot of glorious and fecund poetry out there about the transformation of seasons that we’re all just starting to witness or about to. If you have a poem that you especially love, be it your own or another’s, please share it in the comments, on the S & P Facebook page, or on twitter, hashtag #MudSongs.

To quote Tegan and Sarah: here comes the rush.

To explore the physical sounds of a spring morning, please visit Anatomy of a Spring Morning from the Spokes and Petals archives. 

Discoveries & Fascinations

In winter it can seem as if one’s surroundings are asleep and lifeless and devoid of inspiration. Not so! There’s life all over—at this very moment a gorgeous,  auburn cardinal is perched in profile outside my window, its crest brightly transparent against the sun. You can go outside to find this life, and you can also take a look in some curious internet nooks.

 

An adult female robin. Source.

An adult female robin. Source.

I’m always quoting and linking to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the very best authorities in the US on birds. Recently I came across this excellent question from a winter birder: why on earth are there twelve robins in my yard in January? Read the illuminating response here.

 

The seemingly benign squiggle in this video is brought to you by a terrifyingly fantastic article from Scientific American’s blog The Artful Amoeba. In it, Jennifer Frazer examines spirochetes, the bacteria that wreak havoc on sufferers of Lyme disease and syphilis. (Note: while Lyme has traditionally been thought of as a disease of rural places, it is increasingly acknowledged that it can be contracted in cities such as Boston.) While I am scared speechless of Lyme, an epidemic that has affected far too many of my friends, family, and acquaintances, I have been fascinated by its tenacious brilliance ever since reading about its pathology in Healing Lyme Naturally. I appreciate Frazer’s view of spirochetes as amazing micro-organisms. I’m also a firm proponent of knowing one’s enemy, whether we’re talking garden pests or human diseases. Knowledge is power, especially on the microscopic level.

 

tyrone

A new piece from The New Yorker documents how Berkeley scientist Tyrone Hayes has been intimidated and blackmailed by Syngenta, a massive agricultural chemical company, for over a decade. This article sharply illustrates how industry and government no longer allow science to “speak for itself,” instead weighing it down by bales of red tape, propaganda, and bad guy stratagems that make the villains in Captain Planet look like weenies.

 

In more arboreal news, plans to create a square mile of urban forest in Detroit’s lower east side are moving forward . I welcome the beginning of a new chapter of the ever-unfurling experiment that is 21st-century Detroit.

 

timberrattler

While researching a little sentence in a facebook post I came upon this little gem of an article from the Milton Patch. It chronicles tactics used by Boston area snakes to survive the winter. One of those overwintering critters is this thing of orange beauty, the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).

 

greenheronFINAL

Lastly, two tidbits shared with me by my dear friend Mal. First an awesome comic by Maki Naro about the ingenuity of the green heron, one of our most elegant urban birds. (Click for larger image.)

And this, a poem by Issa:

 

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

My Life as a Turkey

A west coast wild turkey. Source.

A west coast wild turkey. Source.

 

I created just a handful of resolutions this year and I think that they are all pretty attainable. Writing more is, as ever, one of them, but when I was mulling over what else to improve upon embracing the wild turkey wasn’t exactly at the top of my list.

This was before I spent New Year’s afternoon having a lazy, prolonged brunch of soda bread and butter with two of my favorite ladies from Milwaukee–Kat, mentioned in the last post, and Erin, who was a guest-blogger in 2013. We were sitting around discussing creatures we have known when Kat asked if I’d seen My Life as a Wild Turkey. I laughed and said no–it sounded like some coming-of-age comedy starring Steve Carell. But Kat insisted I find it. “This guy becomes a turkey mother!” she said. “The birds have their own language!” she added.

It’s impossible for me to say no to any episode of Nature, much less one that purportedly proves that turkeys can talk. So I made a note to watch it and told a few turkey tales of my own.

An amazing shot of a Boston bird by @Treasure_MA.

An amazing shot of a Boston bird by Nick Wilson, aka @Treasure_MA. More wonderful images of our urban turkeys here (with an invitation to submit your own!).

 

In my first draft of this post I mused that I didn’t know why I hadn’t written more about wild turkeys in the past few years, but now I understand their absence perfectly. In my full-time country farmer days I had some negative experiences with domesticated turkeys which I allowed to foolishly color my appreciation of their cousins. This confession leaves me feeling like Ben Franklin’s summation of the bald eagle: a creature of “bad moral character.” My prejudice was completely uncalled for; anyone that’s worked on an animal farm, or visited one, or ever learned anything about domesticated creatures, knows that intelligence is not something typically selected for in the barnyard. The turkey you had for dinner in November was likely the member of a variety honed for its pure white feathers and capacity for girth. Unless you chose your bird meticulously from a Portlandia episode it wasn’t prized for its high-functioning brain or, for that matter, given a healthy, sunny, non-stressful place to live.

But Wild turkeys. They’re fascinating. And, despite my lousy experiences with their watered-down cousins, they’ve manged to have a hold on me ever since I moved to New England in 2003. There I had friends who told me of the gaggles roaming their lawns and driveways, jogging and strutting through the grass like the Maine State Dinosaur. They sounded bizarre and wonderful and I longed to see some of my own. Eventually I did, but only briefly from car windows while riding shotgun.

The first time that I truly saw them I was on a bike trip in southeastern Wisconsin. I’d been pedaling along, lost in the aimless bliss of a long ride, when suddenly we met.

Wild turkeys are one of those creatures that really embody the eastern woodlands, and I saw them not for the resemblance to their agricultural relations but rather for that forest within. Their feathers, scalloped like mushrooms and smooth like a leaf-littered floor, were the colors of venerable bark and marked in an iridescence like foxfire or beetle shell. Their beaded eyes took in everything–us, the steel curves of our bikes, the roadside knit in prairie remnants and field weeds. The flock was about 15 deep, pecking and wandering in the autumn air. The  sun gilt on the tips of the soybean fields we sidled complimented the catching prisms, like petrified wood, wrapped within the wings and tails. I was starstruck.

Looking back, I recognize my time with those Waukesha, Wisconsin turkeys as one of those mystical first time experiences; a sudden, happenstance meeting between two species which for one was illuminating and, for the other, utterly ordinary. (But, you never know. Maybe I really blew those turkeys’ minds with my over-packed messenger bag and bright, red, long-gone bike.)

* * *

Here in Boston I see turkeys fairly often. They’ll walk down the sidewalk, along the river, around the hospital. But my favorite interactions with them occur while working in my clients’ gardens. Most recently I’ve enjoyed watching them wander a sweeping Brookline property. I was pruning a Siberian cypress with a friend when I found a Tom standing on a  small cliff that bordered the backyard. An exploratory group of hens surrounded him at distances. They’d cock their heads, lift a tenuous leg, and let it go along with their neck, streamlining their upper bodies for the epicurean rapture of some succulent slug or morbidly obese grub. Gazing at them I was tickled with the exhilaration of being allowed to observe another living thing. You see, turkeys let you really look at them. Unlike many creatures who are easily put off by humans, they’ll kindly allow you to keep an eye on them as long as you also keep your distance. This is a gift that I accept readily and enjoyably, watching their strangely wonderful forms swagger around the city.

 

Or, if you’re Joe Hutto, you can just snuggle with a turkey and it’s no big deal. Source.

 

If you’re interested in learning about turkeys, visit The National Wild Turkey Federation. And if you want to hear a deliciously cautionary tale as to why you should never, ever feed a wild animal*,  do yourself a favor and listen to one of the best This American Life stories of all time, all about Tom, the psycho killer of Martha’s Vineyard.

As for “My Life as a Turkey,” it’s wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking.  If you’re on the fence about whether to want to watch a few dozen minutes about a guy hanging out with a bunch of large birds, just think: this is a man obsessed. Joe Hutto raises the turkeys from scratch and, once they’re old enough to venture into the wild, follows them through backwoods Florida. He rarely leaves his property for fear that something could happen to the precious brood. Hutto learns how to coo the language of the jakes and jennys and finds love and brotherhood in the little flock. And…he’s a man; a human who seemingly longs to transform himself wholly into one of the surprisingly elegant and innately wild birds that he so admires. Aren’t you curious to see what happens to a grown man who attempts to fully integrate himself into a gaggle of woodland turkeys? Answer: Yes, yes you are. So watch, enjoy, and tell me what you think.

A second request: the next time that you see a wild turkey, or some other bird that you take for granted and make assumptions about, consider who that creature really is. How does it operate? Does it get by? Consider whether you really have any idea what this living being is all about. It may appear undeniably silly, but the bird before (or above) you may also be able to teach you something about themselves, their environment, and how you tie into all of it.

Wild Turkey by John James Audubon. Source.

Wild Turkey by John James Audubon. Source.

 

* Don’t worry, you can still have a bird feeder. Just not a turkey feeder. Seriously, don’t make a turkey feeder.

Love in the time of mosses

I’ve been thinking lately and often of miracles. Not the sort brought in flashes of fire or tears where there had formerly been only porcelain. Rather, my mind is in large part consumed with natural miracles that are abundantly commonplace.

Snails on a mossy wall. Muting of plinky piano music optional. 

Much of this preoccupation has been brought on by my obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert’s new(ish) novel, “The Signature of All Things” (recently deemed a New York Times Notable Book of 2013).

Gilbert’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, is a brilliant botanist. Specifically, she is a bryologist–a devotee and biographer of mosses. She dedicates quarters of centuries to the spongy green, taking wonder and delight in the knowledge that the quickly overlooked plants in miniature, so often ubiquitous and so easily unseen, compose fairy forests; tiny greenscapes that glow and endure despite being trod upon, ignored, and sometimes despised. (See the “moss killer” section of any garden center.) Alma takes comfort in “moss time,” the perception of time that occupies the space between geologic time and human. Mosses live slowly…not quite so much as rocks, but endlessly moreso than humans.

 

One of the many marvels in which Alma indulges is the way in which dried moss will spring back to life after a baptismal dunking. Specimens which had laid dormant and seemingly dead for decades will inflate themselves with water and suddenly pulse again with infinitesimal breath. In her study Alma pours through the tiny, desiccated plants that were used to cushion the journey of botanical specimens from the meridian of the earth. She’d soak them and suddenly find herself able to study and fawn over a resurrection.

I was, and am, inspired by this. It brought about the realization (or, retrospectively, the hypothesis) that my bedroom terrarium, an old rectangular fish tank filled with pebbles, sphagnum, charcoal, dirt and, of course, plants, could perhaps be a haven for the mosses that I’d always had trouble growing there. Shortly after tucking them in from the outdoors they would (and will) unhappily falter. Perhaps, I thought, it was simply too dry.

And so a few weeks ago, after spending hours in bed with Gilbert, I slaked the soil. I let nearly an entire watering can pour down into the spongy habitat’s air plants, ferns, and Venus fly trap. It licked and glazed the yellowed and browning plants. Satisfied, I went back to bed.

 

The next morning I awoke in a room cleanly cold. Moving from beneath the layers of blanket and sheet I went to futz with the radiator–a true puzzle that I only seem to champion at the end of every winter. I turned and twisted the enigmatic knob and dial before standing, feeling the distantly warm grate, and sighing. The terrarium was beside me; I peered in. I was still somewhat asleep, so it was with half-shut and dreamy eyes that I happened upon an unbelievable sight.

I always for a glance of Moby Dick, a beloved, molluskian member of this household for two years. S/he–for all snails are hermaphrodites–moves through the glass case, traveling on its long foot over glass, lichened bark, and (too often dried-up) moss.  I find Moby to be at its liveliest after a relative immersion of water. Snails, with their sliming skin and adoration of decomposition, love the wet. When I’d watered the previous day I’d thought with some anticipation of how much my Mister Ms. would appreciate the humidity.

I wasn’t surprised, then, to find Moby on the wall of the terrarium. I was, however, wholly amazed and flabbergasted to find Queequeg as well, very near to Moby Dick. Both snails were reaching to each other, caressing each other’s faces with antennae and eyestalk, circling coquettishly before rejoining each other in caressing cuddles.

I was flummoxed. First of all, Queequeg had not been seen in the terrarium since the start of summer and I’d assumed the snail dead and gone or, by some miracle, something else. However, here it was, with its gloriously brilliant golden shell and amazingly amorous gestures.

Queequeg and Moby Dick moved over each other’s bodies. When they’d slide away from each other I would fear that I’d scared away their courtship, but they’d always return, spreading and reaching out their tiny, amazing antennae, feeling and certainly seeming to enjoy the other. They nibbled and bit, and not only on each other’s faces. These were erotic bites, beckoning a coupling. On occasion I thought I saw something breaking out of Queequeg’s head, but I wasn’t entirely sure. Given the sudden collaborative collection of snail parts slowly unfurling before me, I could hardly tell what my eyes were being presented with. Were these the typical appendages (eyestalk and the like)  or the usually hidden and intimate ones: the penis, the vagina, the curious “love dart” (all which, in sexual adventure, emerge from the snail’s neck)?

As I stared, now fully awake and agape, Moby again moved away from Queequeg, its frilled foot fluttering against the glass. It then made a graceful turn, sliding back toward Queequeg, and, as it neared,something certainly did slip from the side of its body–a tiny penis. It pierced into Queequeg’s waiting body, leaving the snails suddenly still, sidled head-to-toe, copulating in a stillness notable for the absence of biting and the presence of sustaining sexual concentration.

Leopard slugs mating, as narrated by David Attenborough

The sex lives of snails (as well as snugs, as seen thrillingly and surprisingly beautifully in the above clip from Planet Earth) are composed of breathtaking, kinky, and sometimes fatal affairs. While my terrarium snails weren’t quite so transcendentally graceful as the leopard slug, they mated beautifully and, in the manner of I think all mollusks, marathon-style. For hours. I kept tiptoeing over (luckily this was my day off), only to find Queequeg and Moby remaining in their carnal clasp. I texted a friend with updates and told my mom about it on the phone. Eventually, in the mid-afternoon, I peeked to find the snails nonchalantly separated, one by the water dish and the other in a bed of fronds.

Fascinated (and more than a little titillated), I researched the acts that I’d been lucky enough to witness. Here is what I learned.

snail anatomy

Snail anatomy. Source.

 

Land snails–all the ones that you find in your garden or crossing a precarious sidewalk–are well-known for their elaborate courtship dance. After the caresses and sensual explorations, the tender and transparently aroused snails, manifestations of desire, stab each other. Not with a sexual organ–not yet, anyway–but with a harpoon in miniature, a weapon built in the mature snail’s body from calcium.

harpoon

The action of these instruments is described by Wikipedia:

Prior to copulation, each of the two snails (or slugs) attempt to “shoot” one (or more) [blogger’s edit: OR MORE??] darts into the other snail (or slug). There is no organ to receive the dart; this is more analogous to a stabbing, or to being shot with an arrow or flechette. The dart does not fly through the air to reach its target however; instead it is fired as a contact shot.

A contact shot. I thought this was the same as point-blank range, but no. Point blank makes for a projectile shot from a distance of three meters or less. Conversely, for a contact shot to be true, the barrel of a gun (or the wet, moving skin of a snail) must touch its victim before loosing the hot bullet.

Contact shots make for vicious and often fatal injuries. In humans,

…Wounds caused by contact shots are very devastating, as the body absorbs the entire discharge of the cartridge, not just the projectile. Even a blank cartridge can cause lethal wounds if fired in contact with the body…

Oh, sweet daggar. Source.

Oh, sweet dagger; one snail stabbed with another’s dart. Source.

 

But humans snails are not, and the small stabbed creatures typically survive the violence visited upon them by their consorts. In fact, a victimized snail not only endures the assault, but answers with “a flirty fléchette of its own, at which point the dueling Cupids will copulate,” as described by Natalier Angier in a Times article about gift-giving animals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A still from “Gone With the Mollusks.” Says Scarlet: “Oh, Rhett.”

 

And so, there you are: Snails have a more riotous lovelife than you. Watering an open terrarium can lead to many wonders. And while all snails may go to a lush and humid heaven, it may take awhile to get there; as of this writing, Queequeg and Moby remain happily in the terrarium, nibbling lichens and apple flesh, and liking things a lot more in all the wet. The moral of the story is to keep your environment well-watered, for you never know what it could lead to. But beware the dangers that lurk within your lover’s neck.

The dark, the grainy, the as-unobtrusive-as-possible; the evidence.

The dark, grainy, and as-unobtrusive-as-possible evidence.

How to Meet a Tree

http://flippetyfloppety.blogspot.com/2011/01/tulip-fever.html
A tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Source

The falling of leaves, that shedding of the suddenly unnecessary, undresses an urban beauty usually draped in colors that go beyond the relatively  monochromatic shades of bark. As foliage starts to shiver and shake and pigeon-fly in earnest, the limbs sway in the slow dance of an autumnal Salome. They unveil until finally naked, muscularly curving and dangling, scrolling woodily across bright, cold mornings.

In November we see not only more of the unfettered tree but also settings and props forgotten or heretofore undiscovered. Views obscured in satiny emerald and warm copper clear and come into focus, revealing fire escapes, painted doors, next-door neighbors and hibernating gardens. The leaves remaining transform to peppering accents, flicking faded maple reds and russeted elm onto concrete, sidings, attic windows and brick.

Trees are bizarrely delightful and surround us on nearly every terrestrial surface. Despite our close quarters, most of us don’t know trees as we know the rest of our neighbors. Often we hardly acknowledge their beautifully ubiquitous and stories-tall forms. I feel that it’s time we took a look and got on a first-name basis.

There are a lot of ways to acquaint oneself with a tree.  First of all, I suggest you take a walk. Most cities have parks; go to your favorite one or visit their website to see if they offer guided tours.  If they do, sign up. (You can also look to your city’s parks and recreation department, urban ecology centers, and universities.) Bring a friend if you’d like, or go alone and devote your whole self to the place and plants within. Ask questions. If you’re good at remembering things, remember them: the nomenclature, the shapes, the colors and textures of bark, lingering leaves, berries, and nuts. If you’d like you can write notes or take sketches, but if you’re on a first date it might be best to just spend some time together to see if you click.

A wonderful thing about trees (and other plants, as well as just about anything even some humans) is that you can name them to your liking. This is especially useful when you’re starting out. While it is often helpful and even imperative to know scientific names, it’s almost never necessary in the beginning. I used to work with kids at the Arnold Arboretum and we would call the beech trees “Elephant Trees,” much more for their grey and stretch-marked skin than for their size. If you remember “elephant tree” rather than “beech tree,” that’s fine, and even lovely. There’s no need to be formal about anything; this is all casual. A first date is not a wedding (though at certain times of the year there may be flowers). If you are hoping to eventually become a botanist wholly and microscopically devoted to beeches, no one’s going to care if you started out calling a tree that looks like an elephant a tree that looks like an elephant.

Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.

Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.

If you can’t find a guided tour, take yourself for one. You can stroll with the sole intent of making your own independent observations or print off a street tree guide and go a-hunting. Grow Boston Greener has a truly guide for the greater Boston area. Other city-specific web guides include those for New York CityRichmond, California and Dallas, Texas.  There are also some handy ones from Cornell and The Virginia Urban Street Tree Selector, as well as real live books like Lelsie Day and Trudy Smoke’s Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York Cit, and Peter Del Tredici’s brilliant Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. (I’ll elaborate on Del Tredici’s in a minute). If a search for a resource specific to your city yields no results, never fear; plenty of street trees, like the Norway maple and horse chestnut, are regionally ubiquitous. Get an idea about what you might find in your neck of the country and see if it’s there. You’re certain to find something, whether it’s what you were looking for or not.

http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic14/trees.htm

Arboreal winter habits. Source.

If you decide to get a little more serious I recommend a good field guide. Sometimes you can take them out of libraries, an opportunity to be taken advantage of, especially when you’re looking for one that will suit your needs. Some are illustrated with photographs while others are drawn by hand. Some focus on leaves and others on bark. Regardless of the guide you get you’ll want at least one with a good key. Keys can be frustrating to use, especially at first, but they are indispensable. The instruction on how to use them is indispensable, too; far too often people complain that a field guide is faulty before admitting that they have no idea how to utilize their key.

Since winter is nigh I’m going to share a few of my favorite guides that are most useful for ID’ing in leafless conditions. (While there are also apps that serve many of the purposes of a paper-made field guide, I’m pretty old-fashioned and don’t know enough of them to suggest one over the other. Please free to opine on them in the comments.)

bark_cover-190x300

BARK                                                                                             

This is a very enjoyable book. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the author and photographer, Michael Wojtech, and found him to be a delightful, quirky young naturalist who quotes Dillard and designs cool t-shirts. The key is not quite infallible, but bark, the wonderfully varied skin that shelters and encases everything within—cambium, phloem, heartwood and the like—is not only varied from species to species but, quite often, from specimen to specimen. Our native sugar maples, for example, go through so many transformations in a lifetime that they are nicknamed “the chameleon tree.” Because of this variability a field guide that relies so heavily upon bark for purposes of identification is bound to give you a taxonomical hiccup here and there. Luckily it also includes illustrations and descriptions of other parts of arboreal anatomy—leaves, seeds, etc—so a positive ID is always within your reach. BARK is a meticulously researched field guide from a lover of forests and aesthetics. It’s a wonderful, slim guide for new and seasoned tree-lovers alike.

john laird

The  Trees of the Northern United States and Canada

This book is a classic, and as field guides go it is almost biblical in scope. Hard-covered and a buncha pounds, it’s not exactly something that one would enthusiastically carry through the streets and parks on a frigid winter’s day. However, it’s amazing and definitely worth carting about (though I do recommend that you have a backpack so your hands can be free).  Of the field guides I have known and researched, this one seems the best all-in-one package for winter identification. (The best that’s under 30 pounds, anyway.) Every entry features wonderfully detailed photographs and occasional drawings illustrating species’ buds, bark, leaves, and mature size. The images of buds, those miniature gift-wrapped packages of gorgeous and varied life, are especially helpful for winter ID.

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Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide

While the above books are wonderful, both independently as well as in tandem with one another, their one flaw for the cosmopolitan tree-gazer is their emphasis on natives. Many of the most common street trees, such as Tree of Heaven (of  “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” fame), Japanese Maple, and Ginkgo, are fairly recent migrants to North America. For these trees, Peter del Tredici’s “Metropolitan Field Guide to plants and trees of the Northeast” is unrivaled for detailing the botanical life that twines and thrusts through our cities.  Del Tredici’s book also features dozens of herbaceous plants, thus offering as thorough a census of street plants as you can get without its turning from paragraphs to charts. He also includes cultural uses for plants (ie, whether or not they have been been used for culinary or medicinal use), and little biographies that tell how the non-native plants came to be in North America.

A note on living botanical collections

The species entwined in our botanical gardens and arboreta are another thing altogether. Here in Boston we have Dawn Redwoods from China, mock oranges from California, and a teeny tiny Bald Cypress bonsai, all alive at the Arnold. Though these trees are far from native and atypical to the urban habitat that they’ve found themselves in, they are richly wonderful living things to spend one’s time with. Not only are they beautiful, regal, and impressive for their existence in a place so different from, say, rural China, they also help us to better understand the abundance of diversity within the botanical world. The Arnold, along with many other professionally tended public gardens, carefully dog-tags their plants with labels that include common and scientific names, the botanical family the specimen belongs to, provenance, and other information.

Do you have advice for meeting the trees in your neighborhood?

This post is lovingly dedicated to Kelli Korducki, who recently announced her desire to know trees and asked if I could be of service. Cheers and happy walking to you, Madame Duck! Let us know how you’re arboreal discoveries go.

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