Most people who know me know that I like birds. I have, for three decades now written a monthly column in the IRCC newsletter concerning birds. Those who know me better also know that I am equally fond of trees. I find trees amazing. I always remember the day I looked at the mature hickory in the pond lot of the little farm I grew up on and thought to myself, That’s essentially a really big parsnip. I’m not entirely why parsnip came to mind rather than some other vegetable, perhaps the profile of a stand-alone hickory is a little carroty. My family has long since grown weary of my attempts to teach them to recognize tree species. We go somewhere new and the next thing they know I am nosing about at the base of some tree or other and they just shrug. But I have learned new species of trees almost everywhere I’ve ever gone. In Georgia I learned the Soap Berry. In Oregon I learned the Cimarron. In Oklahoma I learned the Western Hackberry – which is considerably different from the eastern variety I grew up with. Also in Georgia I discovered the tree that owns itself. Look it up! One of the most exciting moments in our visit to Hershey, PA was the discovery of the biggest Willow Oak I have ever seen. My wife would probably pick a different moment. In Louisiana I first discovered the Crepe Myrtles. And so it goes. What amazes me is that when I find a new tree in a new locale – none of the locals can tell me what it is. I have to search that out for myself! Most people everywhere, it turns out, share the views of my family – It’s a tree. What else do I need to know? It’s almost inconceivable to me, this not wanting to know what kind of tree it is. Is there any edible fruit? Is it a good source of lumber? Is it highly prized as an ornamental? Did you know that people have used hollowed out sycamore stumps as pig pens? Did you know there are a million leaves on a mature American Elm – and there aren’t so many of those left. Have you seen the width of the floor planking and barn boxing that came out of those old Chestnuts? Not many of those left either. Were you aware that a Weeping Willow will dry up wet spots in your yard? Of course, it will also invade your septic system, so…
I first learned to climb trees in the Catalpas at my maternal grandmothers. I quickly added to my ‘species climbed’ list. I knew the Tulip Trees were the tallest in our neck of the woods long before I read it. Climbing to the top of a large Tulip Tree gets you a good view of – everything – including being able to look down on the tops of all the other trees. I have helped with maple syrup enough to know which of the Maple species are preferred. I have made root beer (not just tea) from Sassafras trees. I like the taste of Beech nuts, Tupelo berries and Black Haw. I will never forget the massive old Black Walnuts in the virgin forest at Turkey Run State Park. I love the varying size range of trees. I love the varying profiles of trees. It astounds me how many shades of green there are. Don’t even get me started on texture – though I will say I have always been fascinated by the muscley/sinewy flow of the American Hornbeam. OK, I will also add that the gator hide/pebbly bark of Persimmons is cool. And since you brought it up, the peely bark of Birch trees is pretty interesting.
There are 60,000+ known species of trees on earth and my knowledge represents only a pitiful handful of those. To date, my favorite is the Redbud - though I understand there are maybe twenty species of Redbud – I guess I like them all about equally. And, of course, I may yet discover a species I like better.
At the end of the day, everything I know about trees leads me to this conclusion – God is infinitely creative. And when I think about all the things trees do for us I realize God is also infinitely good. And when I think about how complex trees are I realize God is also infinitely smart!
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that my all-time favorite poem is A Ballad of the Trees and the Master by Sidney Lanier. You might look that up too.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Pastor of Indian Run Christian Church