What Can a Tree Tell You?

a variety of leaves displayed on a table, from sassafras to various maples and oaks, and a yellow-poplar


When you study the ecology of the natural world around you, it begins to talk.

Yes, birds will sing in cities and the rustle of leaves will white noise anywhere trees are allowed to grow, but when I refer to the natural world here, I’m talking about places largely untouched by man. Not just old-growth forests, though, but even those previously cleared by the lumber industry and now given some time to regrow.

Let’s listen to the yellow-poplar for example. If you’re from the south, you may know it as the tulip tree.

An abundance of yellow-poplar in a forest means that particular tract is likely new: 50 – 150 years old or so. It is a fast growing tree which is often associated with the earliest phase of a new forest. So when you walk among a woods full of yellow-poplars, you can determine that you’re in a forest that has likely been clearcut at some point in the past century or so, or was wiped out by a major forest fire. As the forest gets older, pines and other longer-lived, hardier trees will outgrow the yellow-poplar, largely replacing it.

Yellow-poplars also favor locations with few torrential downpours. They don’t do well in areas where water is constantly falling from the sky or in swampy areas. So you may be able to determine how much rain you can expect without consulting or trusting in the local weatherman.

When you see greenish-yellow flowers resembling tulips, regardless of the date or differences in the changing seasons based on your latitude, you’ll know that spring has arrived.

If you were looking to build a homestead and found a plot of land covered in these trees, you’d appreciate their value as quick growing but incredibly solid lumber. Malleable, beautiful, and resistant to termites, you could fashion yourself an organ after you spent the time building your own house. An ax handle or hammer would not be as good a choice, on the other hand. Indians made canoes of the larger specimens.

Trees speak. They just do so slowly, just as they move, miles away often, but their method of moving requires centuries, not seconds.

Yellow-poplar is but one of hundreds of species of trees in North America alone, and learning as much as one can about each type of tree in their particular neck of the woods is like speaking another language: it takes a lot of time, especially to perfect, but opens your mind and world up substantially more so after the initial effort has been put in.