Gosh, I love trees. Well, now if that isn’t a corny statement if I ever heard one then I don’t know what is! But it’s true. I really, really, genuinely love trees. I don’t remember when I first knew I loved trees. It seems as though there are tree memories that have been with me my whole life. There are parts of my childhood; the memories of which would be incomplete without the trees that were characters in the stories.
Take for example the tree house in my backyard. My neighborhood friends and I spent countless hours in our trees. Nailing boards to the sides to create the most rudimentary of steps, hauling boards and bits of plywood up with our contrived pullies that we made with rope from my dad’s wood shop. We didn’t need much to keep us amused in the canopy of our favorite climbing trees. A “Lassie” or perhaps “The A Team” lunch box with some snacks suspended by yet another bit of rope. There were no iphones to be found in our tree houses. Rather two tin cans strung together from one tree to the next provided all the communication we needed. Sling shots, army guys, and a pocket knife were our only accoutrements. It wasn’t much, and yet it was all we needed to be happy for many long hours and days.
If I were to build a tree house today, I can guarantee you it would have more to it that a couple of boards and a sling shot. My tree house of today would be something out of a movie set. I’d have plumbing, and a phone charger, a comfy chair, a hammock and maybe even a little fridge. I can absolutely envision finding the same job amongst the leaves and branches as I did as a kid. The sad part is, that even if I were lucky enough to have an adult sized tree top respite, there would be little time for enjoyment.
Allow me again to reminisce. The county park between our church and school was full of big beautiful specimens. 3rd Street Elementary School in my hometown of Belvidere, NJ was a short 2 minute walk from the park in the middle of our tiny rural town. Mrs. Hart, my 3rd grade teacher, walked us down to the park to collect leaves for a tree project. Who could collect the greatest variety of leaves? Whose leaf rubbing would be the most beautiful? How funny to look back on that time now. I remember standing on the sidewalk under a female gingko tree; stinky gingko fruits all over the ground polluting the air with their putrid scent. I find it humorous to even consider that I could wrap my head around the concept of male and female trees at the tender age of 9. The Belvidere Park has many oaks. I’m sure my leaf collection probably had a half a dozen oak leaves in it. In 3rd grade, it’s okay for an oak leaf to just be an oak leaf. Flash forward 15 years to Hort 202 at PSU and suddenly it’s not acceptable not to know the difference between a Swamp White Oak and a White Oak. Flash forward another 15 years to present day. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t know the difference between Quercus bicolor and Quercus alba. How could I have known some 35 years ago, that I would someday call this love a career.
Even while at Penn State as a student of horticulture, I could not fully articulate or appreciate this tree love. Walking the campus being forced to remember tree names was an important part of the learning process. How else can you learn the subtleties between a Platanus occidentalis and Platanus acerifolia than observing them live and in the flesh (or bark as it were?) But it was a return trip many years later when I walked my children around the lawn in front of Old Main when I had another realization of how important THESE trees were to THOSE memories. Only this time, I got to narrate the story. I am always preaching something to my kids about some life lesson I think they ought to learn. One of the common story threads around here is to pay attention to the beautiful things that are around you. (otherwise known as put your phone away!) Take a minute to understand the majesty of a 200 year old tree. Marvel in the thought that this tree has been around longer than any human and has witnessed history time and time again. If a tree could talk, can you imagine how incredible the stories would be?
In the book, “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein; the author tells a story about the love between a boy and his tree. This sweet and poignant story describes the selfless way the tree loves the boy throughout his youth and into adulthood. The tree gives what it has until there is nothing left to give. And yet, as Silverstein writes, “The tree was happy.” I believe this to be true. I have to feel that the trees in my yard as a child somehow knew the role they played and gave me what I needed. A place to play and be a kid, a place to hide or take aim. Perhaps best yet, they provided me with a place to see the world from a different perspective.
I don’t know if the trees at Ruppert Nurseries know how much joy they give to me and to the rest of us who grow to love them. It’s different I think when you are a transient tree. Our trees at the nursery haven’t found their home yet. We are simply caring for them until they do. We can only hope that the people who find themselves responsible for our trees, will respect and care for them the same way we do. There is nothing so sad as to see a tree, grown with love and harvested with care go to a new home only to be neglected and die. If only everyone loved trees.