Trees are living things, individuals. We see them every day; yet, we barely notice them.
I have an interesting relationship with trees. For a while, I only saw them as homes and resources for the animals I was more interested in watching, mostly primates and birds. I knew that the giant, twisty, old, Spanish moss-covered beauties in my hometown were oak trees. And that was about it.
Eventually, someone who studies what monkeys eat has to develop a more scientific interest in trees, an experience from my research that was both frustrating and liberating. My attitude fluctuated hourly between Rabindranath Tagore’s sentiment “Be still, my heart, these great trees are prayers.” and my own less eloquent, ‘F*** you, Kalu kendrang!’ as I glared up into the canopy in frustration.
One component of my research project was monitoring the seasonal patterns (phenology) of the availability of monkey foods within vegetation plots that we established in the forest. We used binoculars to inspect individual trees every two weeks to measure how much of the canopy consisted of young leaves, flowers, and/or fruit. Then we analyzed the data to determine if the availability of monkey food in the forest is related to patterns of monkey crop raiding behavior. (Spoiler alert: Not really.)
Monitoring phenology could be a literal pain in the neck. Though it was rarely a crazy adventure, it was often quite peaceful. I glimpsed up at trees, whose canopies I had observed regularly for many months, and saw new and refreshingly stunning combinations of woven sunlight and bright green leaves, adorned with iridescent butterflies.
There were trees I was happy to see every two weeks when I returned to that plot. There were trees that I disliked because they were too tall or covered in a confusing tangle of lianas. There were trees that smiled at me and enveloped me in their comforting branches. There were trees that taunted me and enjoyed making my life difficult. And there were trees that I pitied because their leaves resembled holey Swiss cheese or because they flowered later than all the others of that same species (actual late-bloomers)! I spoke to the trees, asking questions like “What color is your ripe fruit?” or “What is your Latin name, please?” I hugged my favorites before I left.
I just stopped writing and remembering Indonesian trees to go identify the tree that is outside my window. Right here. Now. It is reaching skinny branches onto my third-story balcony, covered in furry, red, flower-poof blooms. An app called iNaturalist and a tree field guide tell me it’s a red maple. Acer rubrum. But knowing that red maples have ‘elliptic crowns reaching heights of eighty feet’ doesn’t get me very far. Learning the name is like finally introducing myself to a neighbor that I’ve just spent months merely smiling to in passing.
But I want to get to know this tree. I inspect a flower cluster closely, appreciating the confusing explosion of red and yellow flowers, creamy white strings with dark pollen sprinkles. I try counting the clusters and find more than one hundred on a branch barely longer than my arm. I compare stages of bloom to the surrounding maples (decidedly not a late bloomer). I note which birds perch on its branches, discovering starlings who chirp and chatter, and mourning doves who remind me of my brother Kevin. He can do a spot-on imitation of their distinctly melancholy coos. I draw the tree in my nature journal, tracing the way it reaches from one light greyish-brown trunk to two, to seven stems, and then explodes in a mass of branches reaching upward and outward toward the sky. Thinner twigs swirl in circles in time with the wind as flowers tremble on the ends of stems. Some blossoms unfurl with chaotic purpose while others pause, tiny yet taut with potential. All burn bright pink in the late afternoon sun.
“Thank you,” I whisper in a voice soft enough for only the tree to hear. Maybe it’s a prayer.