My own little pea patch
Trees are waking up after their winter hibernation, stretching and saying, “Now. Where were we?”
There’s a lot to like about spring.
For one thing, months after the holidays, I’ve finally got “The Little Drummer Boy” out of my head.
For another thing: trees. Trees are waking up after their winter hibernation, stretching and saying, “Now. Where were we?”
This year, and I really mean it this time, I’m going to take tree hugging to a new level. I value loyalty, so I won’t be hugging all trees; I’ll be snuggling up to my own trees. My shrubs and perennials will get special affection, too. My own little pea patch, to borrow the phrase from Huey Long, will be a year-long focus.
I was inspired by reading about a book by English paleontologist Richard Fortey. (I had to look it up. “Paleontology lies on the border between botany and geology.”) When he retired he bought an ancient woodland of beech trees and bluebells and spent a year just looking at it. He wrote about that year in “The Wood for the Trees,” in which he quoted from a poem:
If, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
Years and years ago, I was inspired by the dedication of the late University of Tulsa botanist Dr. Harriet Barclay. It was hard to teach botany in fall semesters when trees had no leaves for the students to look at, she said, so she got a degree in art to have the skill to draw the leaves, stems and branches for her lectures.
Now that I am ready to stand and stare, I began with cursory (meaning Google) research about the giant sycamore tree in my front yard. It’s about 100 years old and 100 feet high. Over the years, 100 tons of it have fallen on my roof and picket fence. I call it my Grandmother Sycamore. The more I read about sycamore trees, the more I love them. I like knowing:
- Sycamores have the largest trunk of any American hardwood and grow, not by stretching bark, but by shedding pieces of bark.
- The sycamore is a symbol of strength and eternity in the Bible and was so important in the Battle of Brandywine, it has become an American symbol of protection.
- In ancient Egypt, the tree was sacred to the goddess Isis who was known as the Lady of the Sycamore.
- Persian King Xerxes fell so in love with a giant sycamore he bedecked it forever with golden baubles and lingered with it so long he lost a battle.
I will never again look at my sycamore as merely the big tree in the front yard. She has a lineage far more glittering than my own.
In “The Hidden Life of Trees,” German forester Peter Wohlleben tells me that trees in a forest have a social life. They share nutrients and they communicate warnings of threat. That’s why isolated trees have a shorter life span that those in a family. More goes on underground than we imagine, he writes; the roots are the tree’s brain and work in partnership with the fungi around them.
In “The Long, Long Life of Trees,” English literature professor Fiona Stafford reminds us that throughout history we have been entwined with trees through myth, songs, poems, paintings and spiritual meaning. The yew, for example, is doubly fatal in Shakespeare because of its poisonous leaves and its branches made into longbows. Today, the yew tree yields the chemotherapy drug Taxol.
Author Jill Jonnes gets us out of the woods in “Urban Forests,” which focuses on trees in American cities. She celebrates tree evangelists from the founders of Arbor Day to contemporary city planners who recognize the importance of urban green space to public health.
Trees are a ubiquitous reference in our lives and language. When author E.B. White was suffering from depression, he wrote a friend that he was going to see a doctor about his head. “There seems to be a kite caught in the branches,” he said.