On Ways of Seeing

I have been learning what the trees are, and it’s changing my life.

I am a huge nerd now, apparently.*
*I’ve probably always been a huge nerd.

I’ve been picking up plant knowledge for a few years now, starting with my first gardening efforts in 2010.  Last year I really focused on being able to name all the wildflowers around me, as I traveled between Buffalo and various farms, mostly using my 1976 edition of Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers.  Meanwhile, I bemoaned how little I knew about trees, but the tree book I had was pretty unhelpful: it tried to cover “a wide range of species from around the world,” rather than focusing on the area I’m in.  This year, on the first weekend of March, I picked up a copy of John Laird Farrar’s wonderfully thorough Trees of the Northern United States and Canada and immediately took it on a camping trip to Allegany State Park to begin my tree education.  I’ve been watching the mysteries of arboreal identities gradually reveal themselves as the season progresses: the bark texture, the silhouette, and the buds that I puzzled over have burst into leaf and seed and flower, providing so many more clues to guide me.

So now, when I’m driving 65 down the highway in the right lane like a granny (or a person with a bunch of points on her license—ahem), I don’t even mind because I’m trying to ID all the trees on the roadside.  Even in the city, there are trees everywhere, and I’m constantly testing my knowledge.  I went to visit my parents this past Memorial Day weekend and was thrilled to put genuses and species to the tree-friends of my childhood.  Consequent to this identification obsession, I’m starting to notice interactions between trees, too—which trees are native or invasive in a particular wood, which trees are shading out which other trees, etc.

I am ridiculously excited about this.  Part of it is the pure joy of learning something new—and there’s also something particularly amazing about viewing parts of the world I’ve seen a million times suddenly in a whole new way.  It astounds me that I never paid attention to these things before.  I’ve always loved trees, but aside from trees that produced recognizable fruits (apples, pears, cherries), I thought of them in pretty broad categories: all conifers were “pine trees,” and the rest were maples, oaks, or just… other trees.  How did it take me until my 30th year of life to start paying attention to leaf shapes, buds, and bark?

If this whole world has been under my nose the whole time, how many others are out there waiting for me to discover them?

This feeling takes me back to the winter of 2012-2013, when I began poring over old Buffalo newspapers in the name of researching the house I was living in and started developing a solid sense of the history of this place for the first time.  Suddenly, as I was going about my day, I found myself thinking, “A movie theatre once stood on this vacant lot,” or “This house used to have a wrap-around porch,” or “This parking lot once housed the nation’s first daycare.”  I started taking a closer look at buildings I passed every day, seeking out details that might hold clues to how they’ve changed over time, that hint at the stories they hold in wood and brick and wrought iron and silence.  This discovery, or, perhaps, rediscovery—that there are mysteries lurking in every crevice of the world, just waiting for me to find them—injected some much-needed enthusiasm for existence into an otherwise dreary time in my life.

It’s like trying on a different pair of glasses.

It’s like peeling back a blindfold a little piece at a time.

There are so many different angles, so many ways of seeing the same things.

One of my musings from last summer’s farm adventures was that there’s not much I can say about things that is just objectively true.  When I try to relate events with any sort of cause-and-effect story element—”this happened, therefore that”—it’s no longer objective truth; it’s a narrative that I have put together based on my personal experiences and perceptions.  (Even if I try to relate events in a purely concrete way, the wording I choose can reveal bias.)  Every time I try to explain a situation to someone, I’m putting my own spin on it, intentionally or otherwise.  Once I became aware of it, I saw that there were many different narratives I could use to describe the same series of concrete events: I could portray myself as a hero, a victim, a villain, or a hapless bumbler; others could fill countless roles as well… and no narrative seemed much truer or falser than any other.  I still have trouble describing my experiences last summer for this reason.  Many concrete things happened, but what I make of them has never been just one thing.  Rather than forcing them into an narrative that’s artificial but easy to recount, I’d prefer to let the various interpretations coexist.

I’m leaving my job of six years at the end of the week.  I’m not really sure what to say about that yet.  For now, I’ll just leave you with one of my favorite trees.

DSCN6655BAmerican Elm bark in Buffalo