The sassafras at Agnes Scott took no time to ID — no other North American tree looks or smells anything like it
I’ve been learning to identify trees lately. More than once it has reminded me of my first year in college.
I attended a tiny school in the southern Blue Ridge. There I spent many nights walking and learning the constellations. Under the stars I experienced something I had known in childhood but had nearly forgotten: the wild, boundless rapture of silence and solitude. My insecurities were stilled by the regularity of the night sky. My mind settled, my thoughts became clear, and my emotions, wary of daylight and company, slowly emerged from their hiding places.
I went out at a regular hour and so new constellations arrived piecemeal. Night after night the sky slowly unspooled on the eastern horizon. The Pleiades, indicting the heart of Taurus, appeared in early September. A few days later they were higher up and I saw the bull’s eye, marked by the red giant Aldeberan, for the first time. A week after this I observed the first of the stars of Gemini. Castor and Pollux showed up a day or two after that. And so it went.
At first I was impatient with this. More than once I found myself up on my toes facing east, thinking that if I could just get up a little higher I might see what was hiding behind the horizon. But after awhile I realized that nature was offering me a nightly dose of the familiar and the new, mixed just right for learning. Every night there was plenty to review and a little to learn. I came to like it that way. By early spring I was going out later and I felt myself avoiding the eastern sky. I didn’t want to spoil the pace.
Today I’m in the latter half of my middle years. As a college student I thought I’d have life pretty much solved by now. I thought my faith would be steady and my income solid, that I’d have a strong health regimen, a dependable daily schedule, few anxieties, and no regrets. I thought I’d have worked through all the difficult but standard questions of personal identity and life purpose. I thought I’d be in control.
But I’m not, and it can take a while to really see that and admit it. Since college my days have been filled with meetings and kids’ activities and new jobs and countless logistic and personal and professional challenges. There have been deadlines to meet, dates to remember, articles to write, papers to grade, classes to teach, messes to clean up, forms to fill out, bills to pay, all good and normal midlife tasks. But they seem to me like so many heads of the Hydra. It’s hard to take a breath when you’re fighting such a monster. I can list only a handful of times since college that I’ve been in touch with my essential freedom, times when I have not at some level been conscious of the push of my schedule, worried on some level about What’s Next.
I’m tired and a little bewildered, to tell the truth, and I have miles to go before I sleep.
I was in this mindset when I started on the trees. It was January. The conifers and laurels and magnolias were easy enough, but until lately the deciduous trees were really challenging. For them I had only branching patterns and bark. Also location: sandy soil, slopes, bottomland, creekside. I poked through ground litter and that helped in a few cases, but mostly I was at a loss. So I waited on leaves, flowers, fruit, anything. I checked certain trees regularly. The waiting was satisfying, just as it was for me as a college student under the stars. I stood and looked up at branches spread like fractals against the winter sky while life prepared itself underground, in the atmosphere, behind the bark of a million trees.
Today, for the greater part, the leaves have arrived. I’ve learned maples and oaks and hickories and dogwoods and hornbeams and locusts and many others. But trees won’t be rushed. Many leaves are still new, and new leaves have this in common with new embryos: even across species, they can look a lot alike, and they reach their final forms on their own schedules.
There is a small tree on the bank of Burnt Fork Creek, a short walk from my house. The leaves in the image above came from it. I have been watching it since February and I have found several others like it, some quite a bit larger. I have drawn pictures of the tree and its leaves. I have returned to it again and again over the weeks, and I’m still at a loss. It is neither dogwood nor elm. It is neither hornbeam nor persimmon. It might be blackgum. It might be silverbell. Right now I don’t know. One day flowers and fruit will arrive and I’ll know its name. But today its name is a mystery.
Waiting for this one tree makes me conscious of time’s great stream. It takes my attention away from the ongoing staccato of deadlines and appointments that threatens to fragment my life. Waiting for this tree reminds me that life is not a problem to be solved or a situation to manage. It is not just one damned thing after another. It is an unfolding, a vast rising and falling, a wave of great depth. My job is to ride the wave, to wonder at it, to document it, to say: I am here, I am a part of this and a witness to it.
My mind is settling. My thoughts and feelings are appearing here and there like animals after a long hibernation. The happiness of being outdoors and learning the names of things is once more proving to be unreasonably powerful in my life. And when I learn the name of this one green and particular feature of the cosmos, I’ll be sure to let you know.