Master Naturalist training week begins 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), a former wildfire fighter, 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 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 what resonated with us in our 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 the same thing. After telling our new partner about what drew us to our twin 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 the blanket 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 looked around for who else was holding a sugar pinecone until my gaze landed on a pleasant looking woman with silver hair and a kind smile standing across the room from me. Like me, she was holding her pinecone in two hands.
“Is this a sugar pinecone?” I asked the leader on my way over to join my new friend.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“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 went first to tell my story.
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 born, most likely on an outing with the young family in Davis, California where they were living while he pursued his PhD. It managed to survive three moves the family made after that, to North Carolina and then two more to 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. 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 skins on the bottom 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 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 an acquaintance and upon realizing this fact, I basically lost my composure. I’m a very emotional person. The loss of my dad was just too recent. A wave of overwhelming grief swept through me at that moment and did not let go. As we hugged, 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 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.
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 was lonely and emotionally exhausting after that 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, unsure of myself and cutoff 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 going through it. The experience 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 this goal. Snowmobiling for hours on end some Saturday can be calming and meaningful. Just as running a marathon can be. Or climbing a mountain. Getting your gear out for fishing, rafting, canoeing, biking. Each of these 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.
Sitting quietly, rifle propped on the shooting rest, sitting high up in a deer stand taking notice of the surrounding forest sounds reverberating. A soft snowfall begins and cold starts creeping into your bones until, suddenly, a winter songbird lands on the gun barrel and starts to sing, changing everything. Collapsing with grief on the park’s walking path under a tsunami of personal loss, and then awakening out of that to the “hank-hank” call of a nearby nuthatch, or to the beauty of the sunset. These are stark reminders of the fact that everything is going on business as usual, neutrally, and that’s okay. A passerby compassionately offering you their dog to pet because they see your suffering, because they have been through this same thing themselves before. Fishing in Alaska and turning around at a small noise to find several brown bears all this time have been feasting on berries behind you, minding their own business. 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 your dad and discussing who goes first down the next hill. Your dad and you fishing for perch in the bay, both of you finding out later those hours of precious time are what you will 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 categorizes trees (and other seed bearing plants) into the place they occupy in nature. The scientist, Carl Linnaeus, created this system of classification so that we could talk about life on Earth in all its evolving diversity, through past into present in our search for knowledge of the world around us. Taxonomy 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. Virtual reality and social media supply an identical analogy to Linnaeus’s abstract tool with an essential addition; that being, devices ask us to temporarily give up our birthright of autonomy that we naturally receive in the come-what-may happening in the actual world. Understood and accepted as entertainment only (along with skills and challenges gaming might provide), this can even become another treasured object of our experience. Yet, another key distinction exists that is easy to miss within that analogy, and it is a crucial one, turning 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 manipulating content and deciding what to feed and portray in their programming. An individual granting meaning to that content as actually shaping and defining themselves disengages from the track leading naturally to one’s own, true self-discovery, and may even derail into a place languishing in loneliness.
The bigger picture is always waiting for you to pay attention to the random connections and interesting pieces life feeds you when you find yourself searching for ways to put them together. 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 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. 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 cannot take for granted such magnanimous life partners!
Hard science provides naturalists (whether seasoned or just starting out), the unshakeable frame table for our work as educators, advocates, data collectors/inputters, researchers, citizen scientists and just plain life-long learners. The more we get into, the more passionate we may become. Best of all, when we sit down at the table together, that’s when 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 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 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 creche, 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 dirt, lingered on my hands. I liked this feeling and expected it. On windy days, I made a point of climbing up high and sitting in 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 as an adult and mother, my maple often got a hug.
For years, a particular white pine in town 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, and sometimes engage in a circular practice that I call tree breathing. In Spring, I can almost taste the spiciness of the hormones it 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.
Learning the science and dendrology of each tree species has expanded that connectedness manifold. Strange to say, but not too long ago, I used to take winter buds completely for granted, didn’t think about them much at all except as these 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 challenge of winter tree identification which I very much enjoy. Walking among a forest, a renewed sense of joyful recognition fills me as each tree for whatever reason garners my attention, 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 types of leaves wither but remain attached and persist on the tree well into winter. I 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 presents itself looking back up at me. 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 saying,
“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.