A Year in Trees (And Tree Books)

2020 meant many things to me, not surprisingly or even remotely unique. But 2020 was, in the end, a year of trees; a year in trees. This has been a surprising, enriching tree awakening that began around January 1 and blossomed into a spring of discovery in the neighborhood and the mountain trails I frequent. It has also been a journey through books as I turned over this new leaf. This post is both an exploration of my year in trees and a review of several of the books that were important to my own growth. All puns intended.

We live surrounded by trees. Within a stone’s throw of our apartment building are parks, cemeteries, and streets lined with species both native and imported. Thanks to the Alexandria National Cemetery and surrounding landscaped areas, I can explore 200 year old trees planted by early Alexandrian developers. I can also enjoy the curated trees of the 20-year old Alexandria African-American Heritage Park and the Hoof’s Run banks. But it wasn’t until this year that I began to commune with these trees, identify them, and watch carefully as they go through their annual cycle of rebirth. As a particularly vivid memory, Cheryl and I paused a little after midnight on our walk home after celebrating New Year’s Eve by a regal white pine across the street from our building and declared it “the 2020 Tree” in a hopeful burst of declaration. (For me, my earliest tree memories are running around the white pine-dominated second-growth forests of central Massachusetts. They’re not common in the wild down here for the most part and the 2020 Tree is a human-planted tree in our park.)

Not the 2020 Tree — a colossal willow oak near Alexandria National Cemetery that we view daily from our apartment window.

Identification. With a combination of several terrific tree field guides and a useful app, it was a wondrous year of identification. Why does it mean something to name a tree in order to enhance appreciation of it? It doesn’t, of course. But like an ancient culture spirit or a fantasy novel mystical entity, the naming of an object denotes a power and a purpose with, or indeed, over it. It has been truly invigorating to greet the living world around me by their scientific and commonplace names. I do recommend a combination of books, apps, and internet resources when embarking on a similar journey. It has been this comprehensive and curious approach that has meant the most to me. After using many apps, PictureThis emerged as the hands down most accurate and user friendly. For books, the Sibley Guide to Trees is the most informative and useful, even though it relies on paintings rather than pictures. The National Audubon Society’s Eastern Region Field Guide to Trees is the most comprehensive. I appreciated the winter pictures and bark focus of A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast and the detailed photos of Identifying Trees of the East as other options. Cheryl and I would often spend our spring walks with a book or two in hand, wandering the neighborhood to identify and learn as fresh shoots and buds emerged, like all of us, from a cruel winter of sheltering in place. Despite it all this year, when I think back on 2020 this is one of the things I will most tenderly remember.

Identification Assistant

Books. This year was a year of reading. For me, tv and internet use was dramatically reduced in order to get me away from screens and holding a tangible, former tree in my hands (yes, ironic and potentially hypocritical). Among other categories, I read many books about trees. Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins are both towering works of fiction that every single person should read and relish — whether or not you give a flying fig tree. For different reasons, these two decorated books by a pair of the finest living U.S. writers are worthy literary and historic fiction tomes that illuminate the human and family condition while also telling the story of trees and their exploitation. I am not the same person after reading these books.

With nonfiction, a foursome of books meant the world to me and helped me see the forest and the trees. Robert Moor’s On Trails is not a tree book per se, but a story of man and trails. This unique book is the type of intellectual rumination that will appeal to hikers and naturalists alike. David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen is poetic and educational. Haskell journals about one year in the life of one square meter of old growth forest with remarkable insight. Eric Rutkow’s American Canopy is a very thorough historical work on trees in U.S. history. It is readable and an essential augmentation to the U.S. and natural history you thought you knew. Finally, I just finished reading Zach St. George’s The Journeys of Trees and found it to be such a joy. Also, I was surprised after reading so much about trees this year that this just-released book still found ways to fill in parts of the picture. It is essentially a two-hundred page “New Yorker” type article, with all the long form journalistic prowess that denotes, including a couple main “characters” that weave into and out of each chapter: the Florida torreya and the California sequoia.

As with any awakening (dear lord did 2020 offer more than a few for me personally), this one signified that the world around me would never again be the same. I have always felt pulled in an almost a spiritual sense to trees and forests since childhood. But this was an unlocking of those feelings and an actualization of what they meant to how I experienced the entire world. Yes, I ended up as a monthly supporting Sierra Club member this year but this was about so much more. I am able to hike and backpack with an informed sense of what — and why — the trees are the way they are, and a curiosity surge when I encounter something new. I’m haunted too. I’m no longer able to see cities and woods without noticing what isn’t there. American chestnut. American elm. Most native ash (the ongoing genocide of the 21st century). These add to the list of pines, hemlocks, and old growth from coast to coast that have vanished under the purge of human inflicted manifest destiny and now climate change. The story of our woods is a tale of sadness and murder.

Trees are everywhere: here are some gorgeous red (bald) cypress trees outside the State Department’s D St Entrance.

In what is probably the most 2020 moment of pertinence here, a summer storm led to the falling of a huge dead ash DIRECTLY ON TO THE 2020 TREE. Not only were half the branches ripped off my beloved white pine, but a young yellow (tulip) poplar and sycamore were struck as well. The 2020 Tree, like many but not all of us enduring 2020, will likely survive. But it weathered a close call that was entirely preventable, from the alien invader emerald ash borer beetles that snuck over on Chinese pallets to fell the ash to the lapse in city judgment or budget to fail to safely remove a dead tree that only had one direction to go.

As the holiday season approaches, I can’t help feeling there’s only way to end this, with John Denver and Alfie the Christmas Tree. Be well. Get to know the trees that are already part of your life. You do not know how long they will be here for you. It is very much in every one of us.

The 2020 Tree under attack