Closely observed trees

IMAGE: A group photo in Rock Creek Park. Photo by Melanie Choukas-Bradley.


A tonic for the soul. That, I concluded, was what I most needed now to treat, if not to cure, my post election blues. A tonic for the disappointment that sometimes bordered on despair. Preferably one that did not involve gin. Although that, too, was a temptation.

I found my answer quickly. I would drown myself in nature, not drink. A chance meeting led me to that conclusion when I heard author Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a speaker, like me, at the recent Rachel Carson 75th anniversary Jubilee hosted by the Rachel Carson Council.

Choukas-Bradley is the author of A Year In Rock Creek Park, and City of Trees. She leads walks and there was one coming right up. I jumped at the chance.

And so, on a bright, brisk Saturday morning in early December, a small group of us gathered in Rock Creek Park at Boundary Bridge. After a quick review of history and maps, we set off, first through the floodplain forest by the creek, later to return on the higher elevations of the Western Trail Ridge via Riley Spring Bridge. We were, Melanie announced, going to take a very close look at trees.

It seemed illogical at first, to be examining trees on a day when a chill wind was shaking the last reluctant leaves from their branches. Without such identifying flags, what could we learn? As it turned out, a great deal.

We thought we knew oak trees but there are numerous different species, at least ten alone in Rock Creek Park. The red oaks might be obvious, but there are white oaks, and black oaks — which obstinately belong to the red oak group. Some oak leaves are spiky, others rounded.

It proved a great fillip indeed to run ones fingers across a smooth beech bud, red and soft as leather, or cradle a furry Pawpaw bud while yearning wistfully for that aromatic late summer fruit.

We observed with awe the last tulip tree cones waving in the breeze on the topmost branches, gilded by the bright winter sun. We tossed their merry helicopter seeds from the bridge and watched them spin like tiny dervishes into the waters below.

We touched the mosaic bark of the blackhaw viburnum; the trunk of a northern red oak, scored “like cross-country ski tracks”, as Melanie observed, its acorn wearing “a French beret,” flat and wide on the nut’s crown. We ran our hands across the smooth gray solidity of the beech tree, on which lovers have carved their names for centuries.

The silvery trunks of the sycamores, their outer bark layer shed, dappled the shoreline of Rock Creek. Ghost trees they are sometimes called, their whispery whiteness shining out between the bare branches of the boxelders, river birches and cottonwoods that also hug the banks of the creek which, swelled by recent rain but mirror-clear, flowed along beside us. We noted a watchful hawk soaring overhead, silhouetted against a pale blue sky.

We learned about invasive plants and noted with satisfaction the successful campaign of the Rock Creek Conservancy, under whose auspices the walk took place, to tear these from the trunks of the park’s precious trees. But not poison ivy. That, we learned, while thriving under climate change like other vines, is indigenous. Its fruit is delicious to birds, especially pileated woodpeckers. The black and furry snake-like trails that poison ivy leaves on tree trunks were to be marveled at, but not touched.

We brushed aside leaves underfoot and uncovered the brilliant red beads of partridge berries, as yet undiscovered by foraging squirrels. Lichen gleamed at us from fallen branches and crumbling logs. Lace-edged fungi trimmed tree trunks.

At last we came upon a giant and ancient tulip tree with twin trunks forking off into the heavens. Was it one tree or two? No one was sure. But at its foot, where the two trunks met, was a small alcove. “Sit down in there,” said Melanie and I did. The tree embraced me. I looked up, held by the warm twin trunks. It felt safe. The world was again a good place. At least for a moment.

Half way, we were joined by Maryland’s newly-elected Congressman, Democrat Jamie Raskin, and his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, currently United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. They came with their two dogs and a welcome dose of positive energy. But Raskin, too, needed the tonic of the outdoors before venturing up to the Hill in January where, as he said, he and his colleagues will have to play hard and relentless defense. Raskin made sure we took our group photo beneath a white oak, Maryland’s official state tree.

As the walk drew to a close I wondered if I would later remember the difference between a bitternut hickory and an American hornbeam? Would I now recognize the trees looming from the hillside in my back garden? Or was it enough just to have learned to appreciate their beauty and hidden secrets?

The next day, out walking our dog, I did find myself angrily ripping the English ivy off the struggling trees on our route. But my renewed environmental zeal also allowed me to really see those trees. To look. I did not remember all their names, but I was, at last, fully present among them, without racing blindly past in my eagerness to get home to a warming mug of coffee and the inevitable computer screen.

I felt restored. We would take on Trump and his big oil billionaires, his climate deniers, and his drill babies.

And then, the next day, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. For a few more months, at least, precious lands and waters had been protected. We were still winning after all.

For information about future walks see Mary Choukas-Bradley’s website, and the Rock Creek Conservancy website. Rock Creek Conservancy protects the lands and waters of Rock Creek and revitalizes Rock Creek Park for people to treasure and enjoy.

Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a Washington, DC author and naturalist who leads field trips and tree tours for the Audubon Naturalist Society.


About the Author

Linda Gunter
Linda Pentz Gunter is an environmentalist who works at the Takoma Park-based non-profit, Beyond Nuclear. In her “spare time” she also writes columns for The Ecologist, Truthout and Counterpunch.