As I reflect lately on my experiences collecting, planting, and harvesting trees, I realize how much they anchor my work, my physical senses, and my sense of wonder. Trees help me triangulate my experiences, influences, and motivations for living, scaffolding my understanding of practical, aesthetic, and philosophical values.
These three interrelated values really sank in one summer when Mom and Pop decided we’d leave our humid Sweet Hollow in search of cooler weather. We traveled north to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, finding shade in a National Forest. It was certainly cooler, supporting spruce and pine, especially going up the slopes or dropping into ravines. I got to know trees differently, materially, building a timber frame house of spruce, hauled fresh from Poulsen’s Lumber Company. I loved the balsams best, neat spires punctuating the slopes between the rounded crowns of sugar maples, their alpine scent wafting down the valleys. Climbing the mountains, we ascended above the tree line, looking down on an endless green sea, shimmering, dotted with granite isles, vistas unimaginable from even the tree-tops of Sweet Hollow.
One summer in this north country, I read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and was inspired to collect samples of all the flora I could find in Franconia Notch, from the valley to the summit. I knew Darwin’s theory didn’t need any more evidence, rather I was looking for a way out of writing a book report on the “good read” I’d selected from 1837. My English teacher did not approve of my substitution. But I came away that summer with a sense of the diversity of plant forms and their niches up and down the mountainside. I pressed, dried, and labeled the specimens, ordering my herbarium according to the latest taxonomic categories, keying them out down to the most minute details, not thinking that this leaf book was a stage in the evolution of my impulse to study plants on many levels.
When I wonder why I was motivated to make this collection, I think Darwin played a relatively minor role. Mom and Pop drove my experiences at that time, living in the woods, shaping trees into a house, seeing trees from every appreciable angle, and contemplating their existence and the make-up of the world’s flora. It was Mom and Pop, who stowed away balsams and spruces and other sorts of northern plant varieties to bring back to Sweet Hollow, pilot studies in assisted migration. It was their instinct to live with their senses wide open that allowed me to see in the trees more than pure science, art, or philosophy, but at least a triad of interpretations.