A Favorite Tree

When I was in grade school, one of my most memorable homework assignments was to choose a tree and watch it over time. We were to draw a picture of it in a notebook, observe bark, branch, and leaf, note seasonal changes, and describe clearly. What kind of tree was it? Could we estimate its height, or the circumference of its trunk? Did birds or squirrels find a welcome in it? Were there sounds if we listened, smells if we sniffed? It was, in retrospect, a high quality lesson in science, language arts, and observation.  And especially in view of the fact that we were living in the thick of urban Brooklyn, it was a wise teacher who guided us to focus on nature.

I believe my tree was a maple, and it was a very young tree then. I remember its general location and even went back and looked for it once, fifty years later, but I couldn’t recognize it. As I thought about it while writing this blog post, I began to wonder about Brooklyn’s trees, and if I might be wrong in remembering a maple tree growing in this particular neighborhood, whether a maple could actually thrive in that environment. And here is something truly amazing I found: http://jillhubley.com/project/nyctrees

Forgive a minor digression here, but that link, which will take you to a map of New York City street trees by species, is an example of a magnificent use of the internet. I’ve often wondered how we can we use technology to elevate, connect, and encourage our better selves rather than the worst of us. The fact that someone has lovingly compiled a map of New York trees and it’s there for all to see…well, that’s a use that delights and inspires me.

Anyway, I zoomed in on my old neighborhood near Coney Island Avenue, traced my path to P.S. 179, and sure enough, there are maples here and there. Who knows? One of them might even be mine.

Thanks to all teachers who point city kids to trees and to the natural world still thriving at the edges of things, and sometimes in the midst. I’m worried about the planet these days, as I’m sure all enlightened humans are, but it occurs to me that unless children are taught to notice and appreciate the natural environment, they won’t know what we stand to lose. So, I’m putting in a word here for outdoor education…another digression.

Back to trees. The oak pictured above is my friend Kelley’s favorite. This one has its own plaque nearby, because it’s a historical tree, planted in the 1850s, and next time I go back, I’ll remember to jot down the details and add it to this post. When we go for a walk in that particular area of the Santa Ynez Valley, Kelley always stops to sort of drink it in with pleasure. “My tree,” she says, with an almost-sigh.

I’m with Merwin on this topic:

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth

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