A Case for Naming Trees

Photo by Dominic Vogl on Unsplash

In the month since I stopped working full-time to focus on freelance projects and aimless walks, I’ve gotten pretty into trees.

On my first handful of springtime hikes in New York’s Hudson Valley, I lugged around a copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. I’d pause every few dozen trees to cross-reference bark ridge patterns and last autumn’s leaf litter, puzzling over the distinction between fissures and furrows, the chroma of browns. Last weekend, I downloaded an app that can identify most trees, plants, and even fungi from a single photograph, which feels a little like cheating. But it’s helped me realize how much I’ve already learned, too.

It occurred to me many years ago that I could identify only a few of the tree species that filled the canopy of the city where I lived. This felt a bit pathetic. I purchased two pen-and-ink illustrated tree identification pamphlets from a kitschy cookbook and gift store and carried them around with me for an entire summer, hauling them out of my backpack on beer bar patios like homework. But none of it took.

When I started getting into mushroom foraging a couple of years ago, I realized I’d need to bone up on my trees for real. Most wild edible fungi are mycorrhizal, or nutritionally dependent on the root systems of specific trees. If you know your elms and tulip poplars, for instance, you stand a better chance of finding prized spring morels.

But something else happens when you get to know these trees, too. You, well, know them. You begin to recognize them in passing with a pang of familiarity, like you’re running into an old friend. The trees become characters and the canopy, a city. It’s a new way of seeing.

As it happens, I found my first morels yesterday in an oak grove near a stream. I wasn’t even looking. But I noticed.



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