Every few years my mother would buy a different version of the same book, only to abandon it after several weeks: How to Identify the Trees of Northeastern America. With the regularity of a trans-hemispheric weather cycle she’d come home, drop what appeared to be a travel brochure to the Republic of Trees on the table, and proclaim: “This time I’m going to learn the names of the goddamn trees.” She never did.
Growing up amid this excess of tree-based literature I at least learned to distinguish maple from oak, beech from elm, spruce from pine. But even long after my mother died, my taxonomic view of trees remained arrested in something like a primary color filter of the world: I knew there were thousands of them, but I could only name six. Until the arrival of a pandemic.
This new cycle of family obsession began with the eastern redbud outside my window, or as I’d often called it, the “pink flowery one”. In mid-March, along with much of the world, I found myself stuck at home, no longer making the 100-mile train trip south to New York City for work. As infection rates climbed, and we began to count deaths along with new cases, the eastern redbud burst into bloom, scandalously pink flowers in brash contradiction of its name. My nine-year-old, who has spent endless afternoons tucked into the boy-shaped crook of this tree, asked what it was called. With all the unearned confidence of my mother I blurted out the first word my glitchy dial-up of a mind could locate: “Lilac.”
But I knew this wasn’t right, so I turned to the real internet and typed “looks like a lilac tree” into the search field. My strategy didn’t get much more organized than that beyond coming to rely on predictive search to help with common mistakes, typing things like “the difference between spruce and …” and letting the algorithm take care of the rest. And here is where I can claim no particular talent or virtue for moving beyond my mother’s facility for naming trees: she never had instant access to millions of images of leaves, nor to three-minute explanatory videos walking through the difference between a London plane tree and an American sycamore.
In some non-western spiritual frameworks, to name something, to classify it, is to pin it to the page like a dead specimen, an act of desiccation – if not quite desecration – committed upon a live and vibrant thing. But the common names of trees, I quickly discovered, are like little stories, dense descriptive metaphors packed with history and life: the generosity of “pig-nut hickory” and its evocation of rough bounty; the excitable “hophornbeam” – AKA “ironwood” – and its metaphorical boasts of hardness (AKA the thoroughly disquieting “musclewood”, which grows in the uncanny valley of sylvan nicknames); the overcompensations of “showy mountain ash”, which can’t quite tell if it’s a shrub or a tree; the arrogance of the “staghorn sumac” and its disembodied red velvet antlers; the bewitching promise of the “golden raintree”, invasive in its beauty; the sprawling wayside calm of the “wayfaring tree”.
I encounter simpler trees, now, as I pause on my daily pandemic walks, noting a decorous row of honey locusts on the way to the corner store, or the huddle of twisting red cedars that guards a vacant lot, or the giant lone silver maple at the end of the block, spreading wide and tall in its relative isolation. Moments spent with each newly named tree render the world a little less apocalyptic, counterbalancing the sense of confinement that has come to pervade our lives – brief as it may be, I feel the world expanding outward through limb and leaf. These accidents of grace also hold within them communion with my mother, and the fulfillment of a commitment she could never keep.
My mum’s last words, as her family gathered in the hospice wing of a small-town Ontario hospital to sit and stand and sit again, to drink bad coffee and to wet her lips with small white swabs, were “blue, blue, blue”. They were spoken neither as instruction nor declaration, but rather as description – she was naming something. None of us will ever know what it was she named – whether feeling or vision or destination – but we will never forget the gentleness with which she named it.
There is a giant blue spruce on my family’s land in southern Quebec. At 70ft, this blue spruce presides over a great outcropping of granite, a glacial erratic dropped there 20,000 years ago that now looms large in family mythology. My grandparents’ ashes are scattered there beneath the big blue spruce, as are my parents’, that they might watch over the ramshackle cottage that has held five generations, soon to be six, in endless moments of celebration and mourning, all of us, the living and the dead, guarded on either side by legions of hemlock, beech and sugar maple forever ascending the steep valley walls.