The original tree ID map from my dad’s day included only one species of spruce. In our updated version, we are adding two more and, instead of the old way of relying on general location pins, our new map will use current GPS technology. Susan Jane and I cross the pedestrian bridge en route to the next group of trees on our list, the spruces. As we walk, she asks me another one of her perfectly natural questions that puts me at a loss for words, perhaps because once again, I think my answer will not be the expected one. She asks,
“Did your dad teach you about trees?”
“No,” I reply. “You mean, to the point where I’m leading tree treks and all that?”
“Well, yes,” she hedges, “just wondering how you learned? How long have you been doing this?”
“Not long, really,” I laugh. “I love trees, but I didn’t learn about them in the scientific way I do now. It was more like – is it deciduous or an evergreen? Of course, I knew much more than that, but in a way, that was good enough!”
“Hmm,” she says, interested. Again, I feel the need to explain more.
“I became a master naturalist almost two years ago now, so not too long. It’s a newly discovered passion that has pulled me in, and I just love doing this, sharing what I know with others.”
“No, that makes perfect sense,” she says warmly, “And you’re good at what you’re doing. You found something you love.”
As we finish crossing the bridge, the spruce trees where we’re headed now come into view. They are situated about halfway up the rise of the hill across from the parking lot. To their left at the top of the hill, the native western species grow, heralded first by the Douglas-fir at the hill’s crown.
“Just look at the beautiful Douglas-fir up there,” I exclaim, pausing a moment. “Isn’t that a gorgeous tree?”
“Oh, it really is! That’s one of our tagged trees, isn’t it?”
“Mm-hmm”, I assent, nodding in agreement as we admire the tree for a moment before making our way to the parking lot. About halfway across, I stop walking again.
“Straight ahead, those are the spruces I’d like to tag,” I explain, pointing out a group of three spruce trees. “From left to right, Colorado spruce (or blue spruce), Norway spruce and white spruce, all three growing right next to each other. What do you think?”
From our vantage point below, the silhouettes of these spruces stand out beautifully against the sky. All three are clearly different species when you view them from a distance like this; the differences in their overall shape and growth pattern are very apparent. Of course, up close their needle color and cone variations provide a different sort of contrast for purposes of identification.
“Young Colorado spruces,” I continue, “grow in a more symmetrical, pyramid shape. Older ones like this start to become stragglier which I think is very attractive as well! I do like that species of tree!”
“Yes, I like it, too,” says Susan Jane. “Blue spruce was my dad’s favorite kind of tree.”
“I remember you saying that last spring on our first survey.”
“He always liked the blue spruces,” she goes on, smiling. “Let’s do your idea. It’s an excellent way to compare and contrast when the trees are located so close together like this.”
We continue up the rise toward the three spruces fated now to receive ID signs.
“When I picked out these, I was imagining a class of school children maybe standing in a group with all three species right in front of them at the same time,” I muse as we approach the trees, “so they can see the variations between them all at once, like for example, how the cones vary so much in shape and size.”
“I love the thought of connecting people to trees like this!”
Spruce trees are classified in the genus Picea, of which there are almost three dozen species growing all over the world. Each needle (leaf) of a spruce tree is attached singly to the branch on a small peg-like structure, closely spaced and spiraling up the branch. Spruce needles are squarish and sharply poky. When my husband and I moved to our home 30 years ago, a white spruce (Picea glauca) was living on our front lawn, towering fully mature, and very enjoyable to us until its passing last year. Remnants of its former glory remain, however, in the form of four stumps cut from the massive trunk. After they dried for a week or so, I peeled off the bark and made decorative, sturdy bases for two lakeside, fire ring benches at our family’s cabin. Three more of the stumps provide a rustic, sturdy base for my dad’s memorial bench which now also occupies a special place on that land. The remaining base of the tree trunk we left tallish, rising up about 25 feet. We thought maybe it might invite some wildlife, even if just as a perch for a bird to land on.
Every part of a spruce tree has provided people gifts for millennia, from root to tip. Native Americans used the fibrous roots to sew pieces of birch bark together forming cozy shelters. The buds are high in vitamin C as well as carotenoids and minerals. Branch tips are traditionally used in the brewing of spruce beer, and steeped to make a nutritious, medicinal tea. Spruce resin is antiseptic and has been used as a healing salve as well as made into pitch for use as glue or for waterproofing. For recreational chewing, the resin at one time was boiled down into a popular product called spruce gum. The long fiber structure of spruce wood is valued for its use in making paper. Spruce heartwood reverberates in its own special way, as do many other species of wood used in musical instruments. A piano’s inner soundboard, for example, is usually made of spruce. My first guitar was also — a fact that warmed me to it immediately knowing the type of tree from which it was created. Forest creatures also enjoy the cones and buds for daily sustenance.
Clearly, the gifts spruce trees provide manifest themselves in many ways. The preciousness of each individual tree juxtaposed with the practical transformations resulting from its harvest is an easy sort of alchemy, repurposing what was already gold into another form of the same. Our yard’s white spruce tree also provides an anecdote of my own transformation from a person who basically described everything that had evergreen needles as a “pine tree” into a naturalist thoroughly concerned with the correct identification of conifer species. In the not so recent past, I would often refer to our white spruce with comments like,
“’That pine tree looks so beautiful today!’ or ‘Do you like where I hung the bird feeder on the pine tree?’”
To which my husband would reply each time,
“Ahem. It’s a spruce.”
“Oh, right. Whatever!” Heedless, I went on making the same mistake over and again.
Then, about seven years ago, I began to take daily walks, usually just about at the time the sun is rising off the horizon. These early morning walks included moments of what I call “Vitamin sunshine” and involved lifting my face to greet the morning star. I enjoyed the light dancing through my closed eyelids, letting the sunshine do its healing work. About the third year into this routine, I began to notice nature around me in a new way, began to observe subtle changes of seasons through which plants, animals, birds, elements, insects and all things unseen (microbes, energy) interact to make a world unto itself — our universe of life around which all things revolve, and which includes all of us. Another word for this is phenology. Structures. Patterns. Seasons. Changes. Until then, as a working artist, my approach centered on capturing nature’s beauty through a painter’s understanding of the way light, shadow and reflection play upon a landscape. Increasingly, I was coming to value knowing nature from a naturalist’s perspective, wanting to identify plants and understand their place in the scheme of things which scientific enquiry has uncovered. A sort of balancing act was occurring in my mind between the beauty of nature and the scientific knowledge base, each enhancing the other and uniting me profoundly to it through both heart and mind. Nowadays, greeting a tree either by its common name or its Latin nomenclature in addition to knowing whether it is male, female or both, has become my modus operandi — a friendly way to approach other living species with which we share planet Earth.
About four years into these morning walks, my thoughts began to coalesce around moments of creative observation connecting nature, ideas and life. Every day brought a new chance encounter leading to a new idea that was meaningful. Not knowing what it would be, I left myself open to whatever would come, content in the knowledge that my daily ramblings would lead to discoveries waiting to reveal themselves. All I had to do was walk and observe what presented itself in that moment. Even now, the thought of this simplicity working on the behalf of every single person at all times brings a smile of calm to my lips. A blue jay calling. The wind against flower faces turned a certain direction toward the sun exactly the same way as mine is! Dewdrops scattered amidst deer prints in the sandy road beneath my feet, a trail leading….somewhere. In time, a strong urge came over me to write down these observations, and so I began to do so, usually immediately upon returning home before I would forget the experience and its feelings. Often that’s how the connections come, through the creative act of writing. While learning, for example, about a particular flower that caught my eye that day, and musing upon its several aspects, I would enter a realm of thoughtful reflection. Writing (or journaling) is one way we can come to know ourselves, one way we can meet our own inner wisdom, and perhaps over time even discover a new path or passion we might encourage ourselves to follow.
Writing is not new to me. As a young woman, I began sharing my poetry with my dad during the time I worked as a secretary at the University of MN. Often, I would send him my latest poem through the intercampus mail system addressed to Dr. Mirocha (Professor of Plant Pathology). It was a fun way to connect, even though back then I lived in the same city and would visit my childhood home quite often. In later years, email or U.S. mail became the vehicle for transmission, and it was a good feeling knowing that he appreciated each one of my poems. Through the decades he saved them all in a folder in his file drawer.
My more recent reflections are longer pieces, poetic at heart but also containing a well-researched science component, both aspects of which my dad could relate to. He possessed a poet’s heart and sensibility in his inner life as well as being a scientist in his career. For me, these newer writings exemplify a personal transformation that began to pour out of me coincidentally the spring of the year that he died. Was it a coincidence? Did some sort of transference occur? Why do we follow a certain passion or inspiration that arises from within? A small part of my motivation for sending him these nature writings was to entertain, knowing he wasn’t always feeling well. Just like with my poems, I knew he’d like and appreciate these writings.
Over the summer, to every blog post he answered with a short comment or insight which I anticipated, and this nurtured our closeness to each other. With their naturalist twist, these posts very much appealed to his own love of nature and lifelong learning. So yes, that historical connection with him was part of it, but a larger part of this involved listening to and following the inclinations coming from my heart. I was simply exploding with the joy of learning and discovery through the biology, botany and ecology of the world around me.
That autumn, two months before my dad died, the lady selling mushrooms at our local farmers market mentioned that her daughter had trained as a UMN Master Naturalist and was teaching a class on medicinal herbs. That seed, once planted in my consciousness, grew and pulled at me, would not let go. It was unexpected, so unlike the person who viewed classifying things as taking the life out of them. “Just enjoy it for its beauty” had once been my motto. That changed. My dad, when I told him what I was thinking of doing, just loved the idea and encouraged me to go with it.
“But just maybe. I don’t know where this will lead really, or if I’ll actually do it,” I hedged.
Two months after my dad died, I found myself training as a UMN Master Naturalist.
Was there a bit of magical transference of knowledge and love of trees going on towards the end of my dad’s life? Possibly, and it’s fun and comforting to think of it that way, but that love of trees, learning and nature has always existed within me. All I know is that exposure to nature and subsequently writing about it transformed gold into another form of treasure for me. When we find such things that allow personal growth and possibly even some healing, it is truly something for which to be grateful.
Now, as Susan Jane and I near the Colorado spruce, I hitch up my bag of nails, and adjust the hammer from banging against my thigh. As the only tagged spruce tree on my dad’s original map, locating that particular blue spruce among the many in the general area was as important to Susan Jane and I as it was elusive. Frustratingly, last spring on our first survey of the area, we had searched and searched without success. Assuming simply that time had weathered away that original tree tag, we had gone ahead and added a new blue spruce to our sign order list which included all the new signs as well as whatever replacements were needed. Then, two weeks ago when I was alone in the park finalizing our survey for today, I had accidentally stumbled upon the original tagged blue spruce that went with the map. At last! I couldn’t wait to share this news any longer!
“Look, Susan Jane,” I point excitedly now, leading the way up a few steps further so that we are standing right under the hugely draped branches. “I want to show you something.”
“Colorado spruce,” she says, admiring up close the attractive branches with their bluish needles reaching out in all directions.
“Yes, but there’s something else, though.”
I draw her in closer beneath the tree until we’re standing right in front of the trunk.
Susan Jane doesn’t know this, but the first iteration of tags for the trees weren’t like the ones we use now. They were small and made of red painted metal with embossed printing stating both the common name and its binomial nomenclature (Genus/species). They were something experimental to try out, I think, and there weren’t very many of them. The second, larger and more formal iteration used a different kind of sign — the same style we use now. These signs are sized 4×6 and composed of white laminate printed with species information along with a leaf drawing.
“Look!” I run my fingers gently over the remnants of a red metal tag that remains affixed to the trunk.
“I think this is one of my dad’s original tags he put on this tree,” I say, my voice a little lower, and somewhat breathless. “See? It made choosing this blue spruce easy for the replacement!”
“Really! I don’t remember these tags. Or maybe it was before my time? I don’t know who put these on.”
I keep it to myself, but I’m pretty sure I do know who put these on!
“Anyway,” Susan Jane continues, “This is definitely the tree to do because it was tagged before.”
She starts shuffling through the signs in her tote, looking for the replacement.
How my heart leapt when I first discovered that faded red metal on this tree! The Colorado spruce of my dad’s original tree map! The words of the tree name are still partially intact, but most of the tag has stripped away over time. Encountering this remnant was (and still is) like coming face-to-face with my dad, discovering him again if only for a moment and from another time, as if our paths have crossed by chance in the park and I am catching him in the act of doing something he loved. So, too, am I am here now doing the same activity, and it feels like reaching back in time and pulling him into the present along with me.
“That’s strange,” Susan Jane says. “I can’t seem to find this one. We must have left it off the order by mistake!”
“Oh? Wow! That’s too bad.”
We pause, taking in this news, then begin to move away from the tree discussing what to do to remedy the situation.
“I think we need to follow-up and have this tree tagged,” I propose. “It’s your dad’s favorite, and it was on the original map.”
“Let’s go ahead and order another one,” Susan Jane decides. “Someone can come back anytime to attach it when it comes in.”
“And it’s marked already where it goes,” I say with a smile, “right over the remnants of the old one!”
I look back once more at the tiny bits of metal and two rusty nails holding them, now deeply embedded in the tree trunk. There is nothing I can do about removing them. They may always remain in the tree. With a plan of action now in place, a sense of completion fills me. My dad was here, and that knowledge is comforting.
For the moment, that seems to be all that matters.