Having grown up in the Midwest of good ol Merica, you’d think I would be savvy at identifying the trees that yield the material I spend the most time with. But alas, not so. In the eighth grade, I had a science project that involved identifying several different trees, photographing them, and then writing a report about how each was different. My best friend’s family owned a farm with some woods, so he and I did the project together with his dad. This was before digital everything and we intended to save money on the film.
I followed Mr. Henderson around the woods and listened as he described all the trees and what they were good for and even took a few notes. However, like most things, after pasting the pictures to a poster board and writing the report, the information I gleaned disappeared from my mind. Since delving into the world of woodworking I’ve often thought it would be nice to have that poster at hand. I even went as far as buying the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region. Perhaps I was just adding to my collection of books, but this set on the shelf for a long time.
Then I started getting fun emails from Lost Art Press about a “Walk in the Woods” by Steve Schafer. I was again inspired to learn about and be able to identify local trees while they are still standing. What a rabbit hole. The variations among species is incredible; there are (in my book) thirty-three categories of oak and those are further divided into subcategories. Let’s not forget the names either—there is a common name, a Latin name, and a ton of nicknames for each of these trees. I discovered that it is easier to use the Latin names as it narrows the list.
This past Spring, I took my boys to the woods with a list of twelve trees to identify (Ash, Hickory, Black Walnut, Beech, White Oak, Red Oak, Poplar, Sycamore, Cherry, Red Maple, Silver Maple, and Sugar Maple). We ended up spending most of the time by a creek throwing rocks.
Again, in the Summer, we returned to the woods and made a little more progress. I’ll confess that I remembered more from my science project and was able to easily pick out most of the trees on my list. But there were other trees in the woods that left me curious and I would have the boys sit with a leaf and we would try to find it in the book. When I realized that I was boring them to death, I quit. I certainly don’t want to give them an experience akin to having your fingernails pulled out with a pair of rusty pliers.
Fall is here and marks an annual hunting trip I take with my stepdad. He is an obsessive hunter. I am a guy who sits in the woods. Normally, I’ll sit for hours in an oak tree (thirty feet from the ground) and think about how my feet are turning into ice or about how maimed I would be if I fell asleep and to my death. But this year was different; I took that tree book with me. As the sun came up I began looking at the trees. The leaves were mostly gone or shriveled beyond identification, but the bark was there. In the Spring and Summer, it is easy to focus on the leaves and pay no attention to the bark. But the variations in the bark of trees are amazing—smooth, rough, deeply rutted, gray, brown, white, flaky. The bark can tell you a lot about what is going on inside the tree too. I found strange growths and knew it would be a burl. I saw one tree with bark that twisted around the tree and knew that the grain would probably be twisted too.
It occurred to me that maybe that science assignment wasn’t supposed to just be about identifying trees. Looking back, I think it could have been about learning to appreciate the differences that make this world worth living in. Of course, I was too young and immature to be all philosophical about it at the time. But it stuck long enough to serve as a reminder that being different isn’t bad. It’s beautiful. And that is a lesson worth dragging my boys back to the woods to look at bark.