Humans are very visual, so interacting with nature is all about learning to see: teaching our brains to pick out important details from the millions that bombard us, and interpret them correctly.
I am not bad at seeing wildlife having spent a lot of time in the woods as a boy. I have never, however, learned to see trees. Trees were always “oak”, “maple”, “pine”, and “everything else”.
Last summer, after much trial and error, I taught myself to distinguish between a red oak and a white oak. At first I was blind to the difference, I just saw “oak”. Then one day while out on a walk it clicked: the differences were suddenly obvious and now I can pick out a white oak from among reds from a couple of hundred feet. How could I have ever not seen the difference?
Seeing is one part, naming is the other. One of my favorite teachers used to say “if you can’t explain it you don’t understand it”. There is a certain point in understanding where you “see it” but still can’t explain it, or name it. I am starting to see that there are more kinds of trees than oak, maple, and everything else, but don’t know their names. Or rather, I have heard their names since boyhood, but have not yet put faces (leaves, crowns, bark) on the names.
Had I been born twenty years earlier, the trees I would have known would have been oak, maple and elm. The elm is the state tree of Massachusetts and most towns boasted of ancient, massive elms dating back to colonial days. They were all killed in the early 70’s by Dutch Elm’s Disease. People would weep as the old trees would sicken and have to be cut down.
Young elms still manage to grow and reproduce before succumbing to the disease, so they are still common as a shrub. A few weeks ago I thought I identified one, then another. But out walking yesterday, now that I have learned to see, I instantly saw that the second one was not an elm but some kind of birch because the leaves had a double serrated edge, not single, and the veins were much too close together. Obvious! How could I ever have made that mistake?
My goal this summer is to learn to distinguish the various forms of hickory, beech and ash that are common around here.