“The names of birds, animals, plants, trees and stars are doorways into an instructive otherness.” ~ Christopher Camuto
One of my favourite trees is the tall Douglas-fir.1 that grows in our neighbour’s backyard and half hangs over ours. Despite its impressive height, it’s a fairly inconspicuous tree. There is no oddity about it to help one distinguish it from any other Douglas-fir. However, it remains one of my favourites because I enjoy watching the intense activity of the birds and squirrels that frequent it. I also like the peculiar cones this green giant scatters all over our property and that I now live a little more accurately because of them.
Douglas-fir cones have three pointed bracts, protruding from between their scales, that look like tiny mice trying to burrow their way inside the cone with only their little backs, hind feet and tails sticking out. For more years than I care to admit, I raked up thousands of these cones and never noticed the mice or questioned what type of tree it was that caused me so much work.
Despite a general affection for trees, I lived the first four decades of my life largely in ignorance of them. With a few exceptions, that have occurred largely by accident, trees have merely been a pleasant, but undefined, background wash of green that I passed by without question. I took trees for granted.
I’m not sure what finally sparked my curiosity but one day I started to wonder about those cones and the tree that they fell from. Before long, I’d identified the Douglas-fir and had also learned a fair amount about the species in the process. The tree hanging over our yard was no longer a stranger. The Douglas-fir was now defined in the general fog that is my awareness, and I felt my life had become a little more honest because of that. Living among trees one knows the names of strikes me as a more accurate way of going about things.
Last month, I was out watching the night sky and noticed the Douglas-fir swaying to-and-fro in the wind. It seemed to me that this tall tree was sweeping the stars across the sky. The Douglas-fir was beautiful before I knew anything about it but seemed even more so afterwards. I decided then to make it my main new year’s resolution to learn the names of the trees in my life.