Seeing the forest — and the trees

Upper branches of the Alpha Oak.

One the cusp of buying a cabin with 16 acres of forest, I started obsessing about trees. The book Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees has been aiding and abetting my new fixation.

One of the recommendations author Nancy Ross Hugo makes in Seeing Trees is to name specific trees and watch them closely, over time. We tend to see trees as massive brown/green blobs. Closer inspection reveals what complex ecosystems they are. So upon arriving here at Innisfree, I started sizing up the trees on the property. There are numerous white oaks and maples, but there are two trees that caught my eye immediately.

A white oak on the property that I’ve named the Alpha Oak.

The first is Alpha Oak, a massive beast of a tree that’s west of Dove Cottage. Based on its size, I’m betting it’s a few hundred years old, and as I stood there looking at it in awe with a friend, he noticed that high up in the branches there’s some sort of block and tackle mechanism. I’d love to how — and why — it got there.

The tree on the far left is a white oak. To the right of it, Dancer bends to reach the sun, her trunk forking into two branches like arms.

The second is the much more diminutive Dancer, which is near Innisfree. I’m to sure yet what type of tree it is (Hugo recommends not obsessing too much about that early on — to just get out and get acquainted with the tree). But the way the tree gracefully raises its branches to stake out a sunny spot in the forest canopy is beautiful. I’m going to pick up some binoculars so I can try to make an ID on what type of tree Dancer is, but that’s not stopping me from watching it sway in the wind as I sit on the deck at Innisfree.

At our place in town, there’s Maude, a massive tulip poplar that shades Maude’s Place. Both the house and tree are named after Ruth Gordon’s role in the 1971 film Harold & Maude. It was a year or two before I really even looked at that tree. It was the incredible flowers it produces that caught my attention, and from there, I started noticing what a beautiful tree it is year-round.

During the winter, Sunny and I spent hours hiking the trails of Strouds Run State Park, where I often paused (despite Sunny’s desire to push onward) to watch leafless trees sway and creek in the winter gusts, reminding me of a wooden ship bucking the ocean, it’s timber masts straining and creaking under sail. Now that it’s spring and I’m living in the forest, I’m looking closely at trees that I used to view only in profile and realizing what incredibly complex organisms they are. I’m spending a lot of time looking up, noticing deciduous details that I’d been oblivious to previously.