(listening time: 6:42 minutes)
One afternoon in early August, Asha and I paused during our walk, by the side of the road, to listen.
It was raining acorns.
“Is this normal? A sign of climate change?” I wondered, because it seemed like too many acorns too early in the year.
As I looked up into the overlapping branches of the canopy, trying to determine which trees were oaks, I became aware of how much I don’t know about these woods in which I walk every day. My curiosity started me on a path to learn more, starting with trees.
A month later, when I found some unfamiliar green nuts, I brought them home to identify. After pouring over The Sibley Guide to Trees, examining their shapes and the thickness of the husks, I concluded that one was a mockernut hickory, the other a bitternut hickory.
I felt a little something shift inside of me with this information. With the knowledge that hickories grow in these woods along with the more familiar maples, oaks, birches, beeches and pines.
I started bringing more leaves, nuts and twigs home.
Identifying them is a slow process. Sometimes my attempts end with me feeling confident I’ve properly identified the tree. Other times it prompts questions to take back into the woods with me as I gather more information about the bark, leaves or branch arrangement. And then there are times when it ends in frustration. Like when I can’t decide if I’d describe the conifer needles I’ve just crushed and sniffed as pungent.
Often I have but one piece of what I’m identifying. I can recognize the mockernut hickory nut on the ground, but not the tree from which it fell. I can recognize the bark of an ash, but come fall, will I be able to tell which of the leaves on the ground are from the ash?
But each time I learn a name – bigtooth aspen, striped maple, eastern hophornbeam – another little something shifts inside me.
In her book Gathering Moss, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes,
Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give it a name that makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem. The word is immaterial. What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality. In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other, but also with plants.
This feels true to me.
As a teacher, I made a point of learning my students’ names quickly. Whenever possible, I greeted them individually when they entered the room. It was important to me to acknowledge their presence. I wanted them to feel seen.
This morning, as Asha and I walked down the road, a neighbor passed us from behind in his red truck and yelled, “Hi, Marilyn!” out the window and waved. “Hi!” I shouted back, but by the time I pulled my mind from wherever it was, it was too late to add, “Ned!”
I wave at drivers and many wave back. Some with a perfunctory lift of a hand off the steering wheel. Others, especially those I know or see frequently, with a more enthusiastic back and forth motion.
We greet each other by name if someone stops to chat or to give Asha attention and an occasional treat, but I don’t think anyone has yelled, “Hi, Marilyn” from their car window before.
I thought about Ned’s greeting several times on our walk and noticed how happy it made me feel. I wasn’t just some woman with her dog. My delight in being called by name helped me understand why I’m putting so much effort into learning tree names.
These trees are my neighbors too.
During a walk, I pause several times – to catch my breath, to look at buds on saplings, to pick up seeds or leaves, to marvel at the light, or just because. I take a few moments to engage with the trees around me.
“Hello, Black Birch!” or “Good morning, Striped Maple!” I say in recognition. “What’s your name?” I ask and spend a few minutes looking at the bark. Sometimes I stand there and gaze at them with awe and reverence, taking in their magnificent variety.
Name by name, walk by walk, I’m building a more intimate relationship with them, individually and collectively. A relationship grounded in curiosity, observation, respect and reverence.
That little shift I’ve been noticing with each new name? It’s a deepening my connection to this place I call home.
P.S. In case you are wondering about the acorn rain, I later learned that it was a mast year for oaks, a year when the oaks produced more acorns than usual. Scientists don’t know for certain why this happens every 2 – 5 years. However, the overflowing harvest means the acorn-eating animals can eat their fill and there will still be plenty left to sprout.