Master naturalist training week began the first session of the first day like any week-long training, with an ice breaker. We were a diverse group of 25 people from all walks of life. Educators, retirees, camp counselors, a couple artists (including myself), two interns, a former wildfire fighter, all ranging in age from 20 to 70, and all joined in a common purpose through our love of and respect for nature. We are part of a great tribe, and we needed to get to know each other.
On the floor in the front of the room, our session leader spread a blanket out and began to lay a variety of artifacts on it. She tossed feathers, an arrowhead, a nest, pinecones, stones, a basket, animal hides, antlers – about 12 nature-related things. Next, she instructed us to come up as a group and choose one item without thinking about it too much, just grab whatever resonated with us on a first impression as we stood around the blanket. She explained that there were two of everything, and after we made our choice, we should find and team up with the other person who had chosen our twin object. After telling our new partner about what drew us to our matching objects and exchanging our stories, we would then come back as a group and each team would tell the other’s story to the group as a whole.
It’s a wonderful concept, and all would have gone perfectly well, except that for me, personally, things worked out a bit differently.
When she gave the group the word, we approached en masse to look over the artifacts. A huge pinecone immediately caught my eye. It was about 18 inches long, massive compared to pinecones native to our region. I knew this was a sugar pinecone (Pinus lambertiana) from out west, and that it was well within the usual size range for the cones these pines produce. The front porch of my childhood home held a sugar pinecone on the brick sill all my growing up years. In fact, it’s still there. I knew it was a sugar pine, because as a child I had learned this from my dad. I looked around for who else was holding a sugar pinecone until my eyes landed on a pleasant-looking woman with silver hair and a kind smile standing on the far side of the now empty blanket. Like me, she was holding her pinecone in two hands.
“Is this a sugar pinecone?” I asked the instructor on my way over to join my new acquaintance.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “it could be.”
“Oh, well, actually I know that it is!” I replied, happily holding the object I had so warmly gravitated towards, not yet having learned the concept that as naturalists we are guides, not expected to be experts. The two of us met up, and I began first to tell my story’s connection to this object.
I would have told her about the sugar pinecone living on the front porch, how long it had been part of my childhood landscape. The meaning it had for me, especially reminding me of my dad because he loved trees. How it brought to mind many shared hikes with him in the forest or swishing along cross country ski trails in the winter. He had picked it up in a phase of life before I was yet born, most likely on an outing with the young family while living in Davis, California where he was pursuing his PhD. It had managed to survive three moves the family made after that, to North Carolina where I was born and then two more in Minnesota to its current home for the last 60 years.
Beginning the explanation of my object to my new friend, Linda, I was just getting to the part about how it reminded me of my dad and our hikes, when she interrupted me.
“Are you related to Chet Mirocha?” she asked, looking at my name tag.
“Well, yes, he’s my dad,” I replied, stopping midsentence. “He passed away a couple months ago. Did you know him?”
“Yes, I did, and I’m so sorry,” she said. “I read it in the ski newsletter.”
Ski newsletter! That pricked my attention. Something in me stirred and shifted. It turned out she knew him very well, had been on group ski trips climbing up the mountains to huts in Colorado. She described how the slope was so steep with such icy conditions they had to use special ski skins on the base of their skis for grip. It was an extreme, adventure type of skiing involving Telemarking down the mountainside through powder snow. My dad was an expert at this and enjoyed sharing his technique with the group. Always a teacher! Linda explained that this type of adventure was very hard on her knees, and she eventually had to stop going. She knew him, in other words, very well. An experience like that shared among ten people or so for days on end in a small hut up in the mountains creates bonds for a lifetime. It turns out she was one of a core group of people that accompanied my dad on many ski trips in Minnesota as well, including to our family cabin. I had never heard her name even mentioned! This was all a complete surprise.
She went on to explain that my dad, especially on the Rocky Mountain hut trips, was a ski mentor to her. Linda wasn’t just a casual acquaintance of his, and upon realizing this fact I basically lost my composure. It was suddenly all too much to take in. The loss of my dad was just too recent. I wasn’t ready for this. A wave of overwhelming grief swept through me at that moment and did not let go. Seeing this, she drew into her arms for a hug and as I rested against her shoulder, I blurted out,
“I just can’t bear it. I miss him so much. I don’t know what to do!”
The next moment I was weeping uncontrollably on her shoulder. She held me briefly, and then we stood apart as I attempted to do what we were asked, choking the rest of my pinecone story out. All the other teams were chattering, casually enjoying the session, getting to know each other. What a contrast to the deep intensity I felt and the altered state I had now entered! The awkwardness of the situation was quite apparent, along with Linda’s helplessness at being able to console me. She was here to train, just like me, and we didn’t even know each other! What was she supposed to do? I attempted to collect myself, and she listened compassionately to the rest of my pinecone story. Then she took her turn.
Linda’s story was so similar to mine it actually made me feel better, made me laugh even at how this object had united us. It was truly amazing how that pinecone had brought us together! Everyone remarked on it later after we shared with the group. Two strangers who, by coincidence, shared such a strong association with my father to meet in this way! Linda finished by saying the sugar pinecone brought back memories of her dad as well, of times shared on their hikes where he lived out west, how he taught her what he knew about trees and nature in general every time she visited.
Through our fathers, we agreed, our love of the outdoors was nurtured.
“Did you know this was a sugar pinecone?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but I’m glad I do now!”
In the little picture, the rest of the training week for me was lonely and emotionally exhausting after such a traumatic start. I recovered somewhat, of course. Projects, outings and nature-based learning filled me with enthusiasm. Still, try as I may to thrust it aside, a background feeling of being lost, vulnerable, unsure of myself and cutoff from everyone else persisted for the remainder. Each night I returned to my dorm room, which isn’t the same as going home.
Looking back on that bizarre ice-breaker segment, I learned something from going through the experience, for it underscored the importance of the caring connections that exist within ourselves and to each other. Finding our purpose in life, our meaningful way of expressing the wisdom, gifts and passion we each of us have coming from within us to share, these things rise above the chatter and distractions of daily life. These things, it seems, are all that really matter in the end.
Nature welcomes us every day and is waiting to bestow sustenance and calm on those who take contemplative action immersing themselves into her open arms. Listening to peoples’ stories has taught me about the many, and varied ways to arrive at these sorts of timeless places of resilience. Mostly this involves people following their passion for certain activities that usually take place outdoors. Snowmobiling for hours on end some Saturday can be calming and meaningful. Just as running a marathon can be. Or climbing a mountain. Or taking a walk. Getting your gear out for fishing, rafting, canoeing, biking. Each of these outdoor experiences comes with a culture, fresh air, and obstacles to negotiate, methods and techniques to learn. They teach us about our strengths, and through them we find purpose as well as relaxation.
One art customer of mine told a story that remains especially prominent in my mind. Deer hunting one autumn, this man was alone, sitting quietly with his rifle propped on the shooting rest, waiting high up in a deer stand. A soft snowfall had begun, and the cold started creeping into his bones, but still he sat as that’s all part of hunting. In the almost effervescent quietude, he began to take notice of the surrounding forest sounds reverberating all around, including the tiny patter sounds of each individual snowflake’s landing. All at once, a chickadee plunked down on the end of his gun barrel and started to sing. My painting of the chickadee in the snowfall reminded him of that moment that had suddenly filled him with such surprised joy at simply being alive in the world!
The day after my dad died, I walked in the park towards the lake, needing to find some alone time in a place I love. I didn’t get far before I was collapsing with grief on the park’s walking path, swept under a tsunami of personal loss. A passerby compassionately offered me her dog to pet because she recognized what I was suffering, because she had been through this same thing herself, she said. Her dog offered himself to me in a a furry sideways stance, and as I gratefully petted him I heard the “hank-hank” call of a nearby nuthatch. In that instant, I suddenly became aware of the beauty of the day’s setting sun filling the sky to the west across the water. These things were stark reminders of the fact that everything is going on business as usual, neutrally, and that’s okay!
Fishing in Alaska and turning around at a small noise to find several brown bears all this time have been feasting on berries some distance behind you, quietly minding their own business. Not interested in you at all! The talks that come out of sitting in a bird blind for hours with your father once a year, or in the car during the two hour one-on-one drive to the Cities. Skiing with my dad and discussing who goes first down the next hill. My husband’s story of fishing for perch in the bay, just he and his dad the two of them, unaware of any medical diagnosis, both of them finding out later those hours of precious time are what they had and what they would hold onto. All these experiences cannot be undone. All of these experiences inform us.
The world’s artifacts speak to us from their lowly position tossed onto a blanket. But speak to us they do, loudly and clearly, of our emotions and our life experiences. They are the stuff from which we are formed. They are what binds us to each other and to ourselves. These sensory objects we can pick up, feel, taste, smell, and listen to are essential to our existence. They are us, for we arise from nature. Without them we are nothing.
Spermatophyte is a major division in taxonomy that scientifically categorizes trees (and other seed-bearing plants) into the place they occupy in nature. Over 300 years ago, the scientist, Carl Linnaeus, created this system of classification so that we could talk with a common understanding about life on Earth in all its evolving diversity through past into present in our search for knowledge of the world around us. Taxonomy, however, is an abstract tool that does not give us any experience at all of what it’s like to live within the present moment using all our senses to become aware of our surroundings in the actual world. It requires us to live in our heads a little while as a starting point before setting out into the field in the sunshine.
In our modern age of virtual reality, social media feeds, internet content and the evolving world of AI taken as a group provide an analogy to Linnaeus’s abstract tool with one essential addition. These digital tools require us to temporarily give up our birthright of autonomy unlike what we naturally receive in the come-what-may events happening in the actual world of nature. Understood and accepted as entertainment only or as carefully vetted learning tools, these can even become additional treasured objects of our experience. Yet, that key distinction exists, easy to miss within that analogy and it is a crucial one. It turns on the fact that Linnaeus is as neutral as a bird song heard by chance on a spring morning compared to the unknown person or persons whose job it is to manipulate and track, for example, content usage or decide what to feed and portray in their programming. What comes up is not just random, because the latter almost always involves some sort of intent, such as power advantage or monetary gain shepherding things in a certain direction, funneling you into an experience that precludes your own improv. An individual granting any deeper meaning to the content they receive as actually shaping and defining their identity disengages them from the track leading naturally to true self-discovery — and even to truth itself — and may even derail into a place cutoff from reality languishing in isolation.
Life feeds us random connections and interesting bits that resonate within our inner selves, and in those introspective moments we may find ourselves searching for ways to put those pieces together. The bigger picture is always there offering that opportunity, waiting for us to pay attention. Being outdoors in nature is an essential part of this. Our actual world is where we find our real sense of presence in and among ourselves. In the midst of this, of course, we need trees! Without trees, we wouldn’t survive. This applies in a biological sense (oxygen, for starters) as well as in an emotional one. For, without trees, how could we each tell each other our vital, personal stories?
Come join my next tree trek or create a trek of your own and begin to identify some local trees. Find a tree along the way that you resonate with. Learn more about your tree. Visit when you can. Listen to what it has to say. In doing so, you will most likely learn something about yourself as well. You might even hear from that deepest self that has been waiting for you to take notice. Trees have much to teach us on many levels. Trees have helped me tell my story, and they are great storytellers in their own right. They can translate the most mundane scenario into mighty sagas and long-winded epics in ways we are helpless at times to understand directly or to do for ourselves without them. Through my grief, trees have been my expert guides and support. The experience has bound us even closer into lifelong friendships I rely upon. I certainly cannot take for granted such magnanimous life partners!
Hard science provides naturalists (whether seasoned or just starting out), the unshakeable framework for our work as educators, advocates, data collectors and compilers, researchers, citizen scientists and just plain lifelong learners. The more we get into it, the more passionate we may become. Best of all, when we sit down at the table together coming from our diverse perspectives and begin to converse, that’s where things really start to get interesting!
I grew up with a tree-loving father. He naturally infused this into the culture of the family household, such as the day he rolled a 20 inch diameter ponderosa pine tree stump up the front steps, through the porch and into its rightful place dominating the fireplace hearth. A fixture of my childhood, it was (and still remains) just like any other well-used piece of furniture. Ever since I can remember, that stump has offered a welcoming surface to set objects on, to set up the annual Christmastime crèche, take photos of the new kittens looking over the edges, or to just sit on and warm up by the fire.
The Norway maple of my girlhood was my first tree friend. Climbing its strong, sinewy branches, I often stopped to inhale their scent on my way to the upper canopy. A dry, almost invisible coating of maple tree slough, not exactly dirt, lingered on my hands. I liked this feeling and expected it. On windy days, I made a point of climbing up as high as I could to take my “seat”, a crook in the forking branches up top. As the wind swayed limbs and girl to and fro, I would close my eyes and feel part of the tree, reveling in the safety and warmth I felt within those particular branches. Visiting my childhood home later as an adult and mother, my maple tree often got a hug.
For years, a particular white pine in the current town where I live has poured down grace and energy flowing into me whenever I walk beneath it. I feel this as a physical, tingling sensation. Oftentimes, I wrap my arms around its trunk as far as I can reach. Sometimes, I engage in a circular energy practice that I call ‘tree breathing’. In spring, I can almost taste the spiciness of the hormones this white pine emanates. For these, and many other lifetime encounters with trees, I am grateful. They generously bestow their loving presence without fail on the creatures clambering up them and lingering beneath them. They do this equally for those who cherish them as well as for those who would destroy them. They have no choice, after all, for they cannot exactly run away!
Learning the science and dendrology of each tree species has expanded that connectedness manifold. Strange to say, not too long ago I used to take winter tree buds completely for granted, didn’t think about them much at all except as those pointy things on winter twigs all looking the same. Now, their shape, arrangement and color have blossomed into a new perspective, offering clues to the enjoyable challenge of winter tree identification. Walking among a forest, a renewed sense of joyful recognition fills me at each tree that garners my attention for whatever reason that particular day, as if greeting a friend. This deeper understanding has enriched me and strengthened that friendship.
Crossing the grass on my way home, perhaps, walking beneath a tree on a windy winter day, I might hear marcescent leaves rattling on the branches above me. These are the types of leaves that wither but remain attached and persist on the tree well into winter. I might look up. What leaves are these? Are they opposite or alternate? It’s automatic now. On the ground, the familiar shape of a maple leaf might present itself returning my gaze. Sugar maples exhibit marcescence, I now know. That bark, dark in color, deeply textured, mature, so beautiful. The voice of my own words of wisdom speak to me from deep within, empowered, as if it were the voice of the tree itself exclaiming,
“Where have you been all this time? So glad to see you!”
“Sugar Maple!” I announce aloud in glad recognition.
Warmth, safety and happiness suffuse me. In getting to know trees, I have also found myself.
I am home.