Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Seeing the Trees in the Forest

It did not particularly surprise me when I asked a rather young and bookish apprentice if he knew the names of trees. We devoted a Thursday seminar when no one else showed up to looking at the few varieties that make up Ember Woods by the Brown Barn: silver maple, locust, hackberry, elm. We compared the bark, the silhouettes, the look and weight of the split logs in the woodpile as well as the towering being overhead.

Yesterday as I worked with an older apprentice with more science background, I blithely rattled on about the varous trees that were beginning to show signs of spring. After a little while I noticed her increasingly tenuous understanding of my words. And I realized that she, too, does not know the trees by name.

And I realized that though this body of knowledge seems like kindergarten stuff to me, it's because my "preschool teacher" was a mom who studied Botany in college and read field guides to us instead of bedtime stories. When we went for a walk, it was a narrated nature walk, not just a way of getting somewhere. I learned my trees (and birds, and rocks, and flowers...) right along with learning my colors.

And most everyone else doesn't learn that body of information in that way. Which is sad. Because we certainly could, given half a chance. At that age we are such thirsty sponges, with such boundless capacity before puberty fills up any extra space with worries about what all the other kids are wearing and how big that pimple is and what she said he said she said somebody said about me.

(Maybe my brain was too full of the names of trees to store all the social secrets that would have kept me out of trouble with my peers.....)

I joke, sometimes, about having to teach apprentices how to operate a tape measure. But it's like that in so many, many areas of farming. There is simply so much to know. Apprentices come to me expecting to learn to farm in a year, four hours a week. It has taken me 50 years to learn what I know, and I need to know so much more than I do, and I am studying every minute of every day in some way or another!

In times past, more folks knew these things. How rapidly we are losing this precious knowledge base! And we are only barely beginning--just a few of us--to even realize it exists and has value. Will we be in time to save it, to pass it on to the next generation?

I see my mission of teaching on the farm with renewed fervor. A whole new to-do list opens before me, starting with name tags for the trees. But it's more than names. It's when do they bud and when do they bloom; it's the language of their leaves in the wind, showing a storm brewing. It's their season for sowing millions of seeds in the garden, to be picked out of the salad greens at harvest, and sprouting into forests in the garden and gutters. Which leaves make the best mulch for planting, or for killing bromegrass? What time does it take for their wood to cure for the stove? I need to know the ease with which it splits, the way its bark will rot and fall off as it ages in the wood pile, the tone of the firewood when green or cured. How many cords of this or that is needed to warm our winter? What log to use for the late autumn fire, for the fire in the depth of winter? What twigs snap easily for kindling, and which frustrate us with their stringy toughness? What mushrooms will grow, what bugs will come to this species in death or in life? Do the sheep like the late-winter twigs, the summer clippings, the fresh-fallen autumn leaves--or are they deadly like yew branches or cherry prunings?

I love these trees almost as much as my soil. Well, I suppose the trees are really just another incarnation of the soil. I have learned to know them for even longer than I've had the farm, through their kin.

Can I sow that love in another's heart? Can I grow that knowing?

1 comment:

Jocelyn Rice said...

I've had trees on the brain ever since our Sunday conversation, and this post has really lingered in my mind. At first I rationalized to myself: my body of biological knowledge just isn't macroscopic. I may not know a silver maple from a Siberian elm, but I do know Serratia marcescens from Bacillus subtilis.

But then I realized this is just another instance of my being a recent transplant, still disoriented and trying to sink in my roots.

What I do know is this: I know that when the papery red bark peels off a Pacific madrone, the green underneath is cool to the touch. I know by smell when the magnolias are blooming their big, showy, floppy flowers. I know never to play barefoot under a live oak, and that acorn mash is tannin-bitter until you leach it. I know that Monterey pine cones crackle open in the dry heat of summer. I know the scent of a redwood forest just after a good winter rain. I know the spongy fireproof bark and skyscraper reach of the giant sequoia.

In other words, my childhood was shaded by evergreens. It's going to be some time before I learn the habits and gestures of these Midwestern trees with their strange and disorienting winter nakedness. But that's one of the (many, many) reasons I've come to the farm.

Thanks for this thought-provoking entry.