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  • Writer's pictureTeam Canopy

Marcella Hughes on Knowing Trees

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Purple flowers blooming on a tree branch
Paw Paw flowers in bloom

I love to walk around a forest or a city and look at trees. Through my head flows a constant litany of names, parts, and pieces that excite me. On certain walks, I know a special tree is right around the corner. Catalpa! Are you blooming those beautiful, orchid-like flowers? Dropping your giant pods? Hello, Pawpaw. I love your quiet spring flowers, knowing each one will become a delicious fruit in the heat of late summer that people and animals all love. Thank you! Old Oak, my pockets are full of your acorns. How are your cousins? 500 different species? Hard to keep track of everyone!

These interactions make my life rich and curious. I am learning to speak a different language – one that I am not native to but would like to be. Knowing the names and characteristics of these tree beings in my world brings me a deep gratitude for the roles trees play in our lives. I would even call it an “ecological compassion.” Simultaneously, a sense of responsibility arises in me for their care, protection, and their continued presence in our environment. Science is clear: trees make our lives better in myriad ways. They are climate mitigators, social facilitators, health care workers, and they improve our quality of life. What remains unclear is how to get people to love trees, to really see them and appreciate them as beings instead of objects.

There was a time when knowing the trees was a matter of life and death. Building a house, harvesting fruit, nuts, and other edible parts, creating shade and shelter all required some knowledge of the trees and how they function. Now, tree blindness, or the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment, prevails. Until you know how to look, everything around you just looks green.

And this is at the heart of my relationship with Canopy: I’m here to help people care about trees so trees will continue to thrive and care for us in all their quiet ways. I want to facilitate an emotional connection with our trees so that folks are awake to the countless ways they improve our lives. I love to lead tree tours, sharing what info I’ve learned and watching others discover the wonder that is a tree. I pour over field guides. At tree planting events, I share what I know about the species we are planting, and hope that gets passed along to others, and so on, and so on.

I leave you with a poem by the astounding Mary Oliver, about the patience of trees. May that patience last long enough for us to see trees as the amazing beings they are!

Can You Imagine? For example, what the trees do not only in lightning storms or the watery dark of a summer's night or under the white nets of winter but now, and now, and now - whenever we're not looking. Surely you can't imagine they don't dance, from the root up, wishing to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly more shade - surely you can't imagine they just stand there loving every minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings of the years slowly and without a sound thickening, and nothing different unless the wind, and then only in its own mood, comes to visit, surely you can't imagine patience, and happiness, like that.

~Mary Oliver

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