Collecting Trees

Getting to know those big guys on the hill.

a woman smiling, holding a multi-colored leaf

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It’s only been seven months or so that I’ve had this obsession with collecting trees, though admittedly I’ve been happily climbing them for decades longer.

All of last summer I’d been paying attention at Visitor Centers in places like Yellowstone and Glacier. Playing with the idea of knowing a lodgepole pine from a juniper if I saw one. But in the actual field, I had no books, no real knowledge at all. It was playful guesswork and I never thought twice about it as we moved on down the road.

Then in Mt. Rainier it happened, one of those wonderful rare moments in life when everything comes together to make some pie in the sky faux hobby turn into something one can be truly passionate about.

Firstly, we’d been living in the high desert up until that point, where an entire forest can be comprised of only four or five different types of trees. Suddenly, in the rainforest volcano playground of Mt. Rainier, we were thrust into a world of lush never ending. Green grew from green and everything in between and beneath had another miniature civilization. Insects and fungi and scattering squirrels. Trees too broad for Paul Bunyon to hug with dense Vine Maples and Sword Ferns filling their every inch between. It was astounding.

At the same time, an old friend of mine made the trip down from Seattle. A man of bearded integrity, he’s the type who seems to grow a handlebar mustache in the matter of a few weeks and always surprises you with where he’s at in life the next time you see him down the trail. Sponsored snowboarder one year, avalanche specialist the next, woodworking artist in between. This time he surprised me by having an intimate knowledge of what seemed to be every piece of bark in the rainforest. My personal Wikipedia to foliage.

He spoke of understanding the ecology by which you’re surrounded, how you could know what to expect along your trails by looking at the plants and animals that live there. It stung me with ideas of finding water in times of desperation by looking for cottonwoods, or knowing which cave was least likely to turn me into cougar bait vs. simply proving a dry shelter.

On an even more basic level though, I just wanted to know the names of and stories behind the variety of trees my travels had me shading amongst daily.

And so I began to shake their hands. To rustle their limbs and feel their needles. I examined cones and leaf veins. Time passed and I began to look for the differences between saplings and mature trees. To realize which types of animals prefer towering Ponderosa pines and which might be happier in the thicket of some Manzanita.

As I left the Pacific Northwest and moved into the more arid lands of the Sierra Nevadas and on to the deserts of the southwest I noticed the variety dimming but my desire increased. Something about life in the dry desolation of the desert inspires me to keep on living like every day is just looking for that next special moment where you find water.

Since then, I’ve collected a bagful of trees. Not in any literal sense, I rarely take anything from any forest. Not a pine cone or twig even, though this rule has been broken now twice and I have no regret for doing so. The first time was a sugarpine cone from that same old Friend’s driveway, which remains to this day the centerpiece of our VW Bus’ dashboard. The second was a willow stick, gnarled and white and already fallen to the floor.

But I’ve seen and identified Douglas-fir (once the tallest trees on earth), Sitka spruce, Coastal Redwoods and similarly massive Western redcedars (the Grove of the Patriarchs in Rainer comes to mind). I’ve learned the tilt of a hemlock and felt the bottle brush needles of the ancient Bristlecones. I know that a Giant Sequoia’s bark feels like particle board and understand that the short life of a single aspen is but a part of the beauty of the colony of roots below it. When I see a sycamore, it makes me smile and hum a little tune about Zacheus. “And a wee little man was he…”

And there is so much more to learn. I’m somewhat certain that eventually, I’ll be able to hear them speak. Not words, unless I really lose myself in it all, but simply hear the story each new spruce and locust, vine and bush can recant of their lives spent much more solitary and dedicated than my own.