Seeing Trees

Early summer, walking up the hill from the river, I spotted an unusual “plant part” on the road. Smaller than a dime, it looked like a puffed-up, four-pointed green star or miniature UFO. It was definitely otherworldly looking and unlike anything I had ever seen before. I carried it up the hill but got distracted and lost it. A week later, walking up the same hill, I looked to the right, near where I had spotted the small UFO, and noticed persimmon bark, with its unmistakable, dark brown, checkered pattern. A clue: My little UFO must have come from the persimmon. An aborted flower maybe? Its shape seemed somehow reminiscent of the frilly skirt (calyx) around the bottom of a persimmon fruit.

All it took was that prompt—tiny green plant part—to start a learning curve that continued when someone sent me a photo of a persimmon flower, stretched farther when I discovered online that male and female persimmon occur on separate trees, and took off like a kite line when I found a fruit-bearing branch low enough to watch carefully. Wow! I had always had a passion for persimmon fruit—its color alone deserves a praise poem—but the stages of persimmon fruit I had been overlooking (and the flowering that precedes the fruiting) were all new and exciting categories.

Attending to categories like these extends both our appreciation and knowledge of trees, and yet, when it comes to these and similar small phenomena, we tend to overlook them. Part of the reason for this is what I call the “one lens problem.” Because we have over-determined images of trees in our brains, we tend to use only one lens when viewing them—a wide-angle lens that takes in the whole tree and does its best to capture that “ball of leaves on a trunk” look. But if we were viewing them with close-up lenses, there is much more information we could be taking in. Close-ups of garden flowers and insects have taught us how much microscopic mystery there is in natural phenomena, but trees, because so much of their majesty is in their bigness, have been relatively ignored as subjects for close up, much less microscopic, views. When I go out to search for a tree flower or an immature fruit or a resting bud or a leaf scar, I know what I am looking for has been seen before (in fact I am often using a search image I’ve found on the Internet or in a field guide), but I must say that whenever I find what I’m looking for, or some unexpected reward for close-up viewing, I feel as if I’m the first person to have ever discovered it, so relatively unreported are these tree phenomena.

Trees don’t reveal their secrets as easily as you might think, though. Because they stand still, you’d think tree viewing would be much easier than, say, bird watching. But even trees can be elusive. For one thing, many tree traits are time sensitive. If you want to find beechnuts or sassafras fruit, for example, you’ll have to time your visits to their production (or watch consistently enough that you can’t miss them) and get there before hungry animals do. Leaves, for all their beauty, can also be obstacles to discovery because they sometimes hide phenomena like flowers and fruits, and binoculars may be required for to see events in the tops of trees. (Looking down on a tree from a high hill or second-story window can also reveal otherwise hidden tree phenomena.) Other complications involve lean years, when a tree produces little of the fruit you are looking for, late frosts, which can wipe out a tree’s flowers, drought, which can result in premature fruit or leaf fall, and immaturity (some trees don’t flower or fruit until they reach a particular age). Then there’s the problem of your own unpredictability: missing the catalpa flowers because you’re away on vacation or failing to see the transition between an unfurling and fully formed beech leaf, because you let too much time pass between observations. Trees are more committed to their maturational objectives than people usually are to their observational goals.

The best way to see trees is to watch them regularly over many years (and the more you watch, the more you see), but I don’t think tree-watching has to be an obsession to be rewarding. You can watch trees without changing your lifestyle, because you can make discoveries during the interstices of your life. Just carefully observing the tree you pass every day on the way to the mailbox or the subway can reveal traits and patterns of startling complexity. Once you become alert to them, you’d be surprised how many opportunities there are for tree viewing. I discovered something interesting about red maple flowers while waiting to pick up a friend at the train station, the late train providing an opportunity to examine red maples in a nearby parking lot. Turned out they were all males. I’ve left malls feeling despondent only to be cheered by the leaves that have gathered by my car while I was inside, and traveling provides all sorts of opportunities for roadside tree viewing—especially if you travel regular paths where you can observe seasonal changes. You’d think regular tree watching would be like checking lobster traps—lots of watching, not much action—but I find the opposite to be true.

We take psychological possession of the things we can recognize in a way that we don’t the things we can’t. To me, getting to know a tree is like getting to know a human being—the more you know, the more the relationship deepens, and a person’s (or a tree’s) capacity to surprise you never ends. You may, for example, think you know the flowering dogwood. If it is your state tree, as it is mine, you have probably been told that the white appendages that look like its petals are technically bracts (modified leaves) and that its real flowers are in the center of what we think of as the blossom. Only when you look closer, into the dogwood’s real flowers—about 20 of them clustered in the middle, each with four yellow-green petals—and actually see them blooming (each tiny flower with its complement of four stamens and pistil), does this distinction become meaningful, however. Like discovering that a person you knew for one talent is accomplished in another (my brain surgeon plays the clarinet?), discovering new tree traits broadens your appreciation of the tree. And there is absolutely no end to the tree traits waiting to be discovered even in an ordinary backyard.

Find out about upcoming programs with Nancy Hugo at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Seeing Trees, © 2011, by Nancy R. Hugo and Robert Llewellyn.

Nancy Hugo has had the privilege of living among trees, writing about trees, and learning about trees for most of her life.

Full Bio and Programs