The original tree ID map my dad had created for the self-guided tree trek included only one species of spruce. In our updated version, we are adding two more spruce and, instead of the old way of relying on visual location pins, our new map uses GPS technology. Our task for the next two days is to affix as many of the new tree tags from our recent order onto as many of the designated trees as we can. 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 replies, “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 until recently, for me that was good enough!”
“Hmm,” she says, interested. Again, I feel the need to explain more.
“I became a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer almost two years ago, 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 intently, “and you’re good at what you do. You found something you love.”
As we finish crossing the bridge, the spruce trees come into view. They are situated about halfway up the rise 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 previously tagged trees from your dad’s map, isn’t it?”
“Mm-hmm”, I assent absently, my thoughts drifting. We stand there quietly admiring the tree for a moment before making our way to the parking lot. About halfway across, I stop again.
“Straight ahead, those are the spruces I’d like to ID,” I explain, pointing out a group of three. “I didn’t show you this before, but from left to right there’s 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 variability in their overall shape and growth pattern is very apparent. Of course, up close their needle color and cone variations also provide great ways to distinguish between them.
“Young blue spruces,” I continue, “grow in a more symmetrical, pyramid shape. Older ones like this start to become stragglier, more open-limbed which I think is very attractive as well! I do like them!”
“Yes, I like blue spruce, too,” says Susan Jane. “Blue spruce was my dad’s favorite.”
“I remember you saying that last spring on our tree survey.”
“He always liked the blue spruces,” she repeats, smiling to herself. “Let’s do your idea. It’s an excellent way to compare and contrast when the trees are located so close together like that.”
We continue up the rise toward the three spruces.
“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 differ 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 in a spiral around the twig. 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 from old age last year. Remnants of its former glory remain, however, in the form of several stumps cut from the massive trunk we decided to keep. After letting them dry for a week or so, I had peeled the bark off four of them and made decorative, sturdy bases for two lakeside, fire ring benches at our family’s cabin. Three more of the stumps now provide a rustic, sturdy base for my dad’s memorial bench which also occupies a special place on that land. The remaining base of the tree trunk we left tallish and intact where it stood rising up about 25 feet. The hope is that it might invite more wildlife to the yard, even if just as a perch for a bird to land on.
Every part of a spruce tree has provided people for millennia with gifts, 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’ until modern materials replaced it. 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 it came from. Forest creatures also enjoy the cones and buds for daily sustenance.
Clearly, the gifts from spruce trees manifest themselves in many ways. The preciousness of each individual tree juxtaposed with the practical transformation 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 has evergreen needles as a “pine tree” into a serious naturalist thoroughly concerned with the correct genus identification of conifer species. An important distinction to make! (The fact that spruces, pines and firs are all classified in the Pine (Pinaceae) family probably adds to the confusion.) In the not so recent past, I would often refer to our yard’s 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 and unknowing, I went on repeating the mistake over and over 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 our planet’s 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, weather 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. As a working artist, up until then my approach had 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 and get to know 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 experience. 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, that day. Even now, the thought of this simplicity that’s available to 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 when I get Vitamin sunshine! 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.
Creative writing has always appealed to me. As a younger 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 that resulted from my nature rambles are longer pieces, poetic at heart but also containing a well-researched science component, both sides 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 over that last summer of his life 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 that summer, to every one of my blog posts 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 Minnesota Master Naturalist through UMN Extension, 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 I was before 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 hedged. “I don’t know where all this will lead really, or if I’ll actually do it.”
Two months after my dad died, I found myself training as a Minnesota Master Naturalist.
Again, I still ask myself, 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 residing deeply within into another form of the same 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 blue 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 he chose so many years ago among the many in the general area had been as essential to Susan Jane and I as it was elusive. Frustratingly, last spring on our first survey here, we searched and searched without success. Assuming simply that time had weathered away that tag, we had gone ahead and added a new blue spruce sign to our 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 things for today, I stumbled by accident upon the original tagged blue spruce tree that went with the map. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for this day to share my discovery with Susan Jane.
“Look, Susan Jane,” I point excitedly now, leading the way up a few steps further so that we are standing right under the huge, draping branches of the blue spruce. “I want to show you something.”
“Blue spruce,” she says, admiring up close the attractive branches with their bluish needles reaching out in all directions.
“Yes, but there’s something else here to see.”
I draw her in closer beneath until we’re standing right in front of the trunk.
Suddenly, I realize Susan Jane doesn’t know that the first iteration of tags my dad used weren’t like the current ones. The first ones 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 my dad continued with was a different kind of sign — the same style we use now. These are sized 4×6 and composed of white laminate printed with species information along with a black and white drawing of the leaf.
“See?” I run my fingers gently over the remnants of the red metal label 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. “The one from my dad’s original tree map. You can still see some of the embossed writing on it. We’ve got his blue spruce. This is it!”
“Really! Wait, 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, and it does seem a bit of a mystery, 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, whoever did it.”
She starts matter-of-factly shuffling through the signs in her tote, looking for the replacement.
As for me, I still feel that first rush of joy coursing through me again as I look at those bits of faded red metal on the tree. How my heart had leapt when I first discovered them. The blue 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, here I am 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 is saying. “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,” I propose. “It’s your dad’s favorite, and this tree was on the original map.”
“Yes, let’s go ahead and order another one,” Susan Jane agrees. “Someone can come back anytime to attach it when it comes in…”
“…since it’s marked already where to put it,” I complete her sentence with a smile, “right over the remnants of the old one!”
As we walk away, 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.