My world is dominated by trees. The Little House is plonked down in the middle of a patch of deciduous woods about 5 acres in size. Trees jostle each other for position, sneakily sliding branches one way or another in order to slurp up just a little more sunlight during the summer days. When the wind blows, I think the noises are just branches creaking and leaves gently slapping, but it's probably the sound of arguing: "Hey! I was here first! Move your leaves somewhere else!"
Leaves were the first things I noticed about the trees when we moved out here in 2007. It was a wet spring: record-setting wet. The place had been abandoned for several months, and the resulting wall of trees and vines and weeds that surrounded the house made the leaves a real in-your-face presence. Leathery oak leaves. Sandpapery elms. Frilly chinaberry. Cedar elms with foliage that reminds me of cornflakes. All different, and all keys to identifying the tree.
And that worked great, until autumn rolled around. Without the curtain of leaves to assist me, I was forced to focus on more subtle cues, particularly bark.
Ask kids to draw trees, and invariably, they'll reach for the brown crayon when they draw the trunk. Scribble on some brown, draw in a knothole, and move on.
But if they'd just look....
Here's a young hackberry. One of my students called these little corky lumps "tree warts." I think it looks like a three-dimensional topographical map of an area you shouldn't go hiking in alone. I can imagine a tiny little Thelma & Louise driving off one of those cliffs.
Very little of the grade-schooler's crayon-brown bark on the bur oak. Like furrows in a farmer's field, the long, deep vertical grooves are characteristic of this tree's bark.
Similar, but not too alike, is the pecan.
The greyish color and vertical grooves recall the bur oak, but the furrows aren't as deep, straight, or continuous. Pecan trees have what I consider "regular bark." I had to think about why they seem to be the norm from which all other trees deviate, then I realized that pecan trees were all around my house when I was a kid. This was the type of bark I saw most often as I was growing up, so I must have imprinted on it as a gosling imprints on her mother.
I've saved the best for last.
Meet the Southern Prickly Ash. Unless you live in the Southeastern U.S., you probably haven't run across one. The trunk is covered with these little pyramids. Many of them have a single ominous thorn protruding from the tip. My husband cut a walking path through our woods, and there's one place where the ground slopes sharply. When it's wet or icy, that spot is slippery, so it would be great to be able to grab onto a tree for balance. Of course, this is the tree that's right there. I'll be keeping my balance by myself, thanks.
At this time of year, the leaves on most trees are still curled up drowsily inside their buds. What better time to get to know trees from a different angle?