Last week I taught tree identification and hiking to 7–10-year-olds. It’s put a number of facts in perspective, the most major which is this: we are who people make us. The little girl who says, “I love adorable little caterpillars, and adorable spiders,” and the boy for whom trees mean honey and bears, and the wild one who yells and circles the class for no reason—actually, he might just have some problems—most of them have gotten their thinking from their parents, television, or other kids. The girl who loves insects? Her parents like them too. The boy with the thing for honey and bears? I haven’t asked yet, but I assume he’s seen Winnie the Pooh.
On a depressing day recently, I walked my neighborhood alone just to get out of the house and think. I found myself mesmerized by trees. I pulled off leaves, and without notebook or phone, I was forced to remember which leaf came from which tree—what did the bark look like on the tree of this tooth-edged leaf? Was the small spiny seed on the Tulip tree leaf or were those with the spear-shaped leaves?
I thought of my Colorado friend Sue, who, while we’re walking in the woods can point to the puffy purple flower on the end of a long stem and say, “Thistle,” or walk right up to a tree, breath in its scent and state, “Ponderosa Pine. It smells like vanilla.”
I need a nature friend, I thought. The kids act like they don’t care about nature until you get them out into it. One girl was shocked when I said that some trees grow fruit. “Do oranges grow on trees?” She asked, and I said yes. They yell at each other and poke at dead things on our way from the school to Kenoza Lake, but once there they tend to settle into focus and start pointing to leaves, sketching, and asking questions.
I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be great to have a friend to do this with? Someone who hasn’t been told how boring it is to stand in the woods learning the names of trees; someone who hasn’t been taught that only speed or cost determines value, like a car or a house or a 2-week vacation in Hawaii.
In my neighborhood we have a Tulip Tree, which I know because of its partly hand and partly heart shape and because the leaf is bigger than my hand; the edges are toothed, and the bark of the tree was rugged. Another that we have is the American Sycamore, whose bark is more apparent than anything else, because it’s spotty and smooth and looks like the skin disease Vitiligo, made up of light and dark patches. The third one I identified was a little trickier with its spear-shape and toothed edges. I settled on the American Beech.
Half the fun of identifying anything is the journey of collecting, sketching and researching. The other half is knowing that you know it. It’s important for us all to remember that just because you’ve been trained to believe that something is boring, make sure you try it for yourself first. And even when I dislike something, sometimes it’s because of my mood or who I’m with, and when I’m with the right person it all becomes a whole lot more fun. What is something that you do that other people might find boring, but you love?