The Forest in Winter

A piece of advice: If you’re looking for exercise, don’t go on a walk with botanists. This curious subset of humanity simply cannot keep up a steady pace. And no wonder! All that looking up at the tree buds and down at the leaf litter, examining egg clusters and bud scars, sniffing broken branches, and peering through magnifiers tends to slow a person down. Put 10 or 12 together and the group will amble along, veering off the path at the slightest suggestion of a confounding life form. An hour later you will look back to find that … you haven’t gone anywhere.

shelf fungi

What causes these beautiful rings to appear on this shelf fungi?

And every little thing has to be identified, not just in the vernacular but also in a centuries old naming system. Let’s just say you are just a man on the street who finds yourself suddenly swept up in the giddy excitement of a winter botany walk. You might suspect that the botany walkers are boastfully one-upping each other with their identifications of dried flower buds and nut husks, and with their recitations of the most up-to-date names of Apiaceae and Asteraceae. Ok, so there is a bit of that. But just a little bit. To understand why a frigid walk in the winter woods with members of your tribe is enjoyable, you need to look beyond the naming opportunities. You don’t need to be a botanist to understand the group experience. You just need to be human.

Oak buds are clustered

Oak buds are clustered

We spent the first 20 minutes of this particular January outing in the parking lot, scouring the ground for acorns and the treetop for branching structure. Was it a pin oak, or was it a scarlet oak? The leaf buds were in clusters, and the two acorns the squirrels had spared were small and thinly capped. But which was it? Ten minds at work, and no consensus. We moved on.

The combined knowledge of a group of naturalists is an awesome thing. Each mind, on its own, has managed to capture a few pertinent facts about the natural world through past experiences. Together, we are Mensa. We are the Algonquin Round Table. We are the Saturday Club! Facts flow. Sassafras and boxelder are the two trees that have green stems in winter. Leaf buds on slippery elms are hairy, on sugar maple they’re pointy. Butternut hickory trees have yellow buds that look like jawbones. You can tell an arborvitae from an eastern red cedar by the resin dots. We feel ourselves getting smarter by the minute.
But it serves only to whet the appetite.

If you look closely you can see the resin spots

If you look closely you can see the resin spots

I want to go back and look at the wingstem down by the Little Lehigh river in winter so that next time around I will be the one who knows, for sure, that the tall stems topped with seeds clusters are, in fact, them. I want to take a closer look at the osage orange tree on Iroquois Street to get a better fix on its branching structure, and the length of its stiff thorns. And I really want to know what insect deposited that mass of eggs, textured as neatly as the warp and woof of a skillfully woven cloth, on the elm twig.

In his book “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration” Keith Sawyer makes the argument that creativity is collaborative in nature. Looking back at clusters of creative minds that have made history—the Impressionists, the Bloomsbury Group, the Beatles—it’s an easy argument to win. And could it be that the breakthroughs have come about not just because of the leapfrogging that happens when minds collaborate, but also because individually, we are stimulated by the surge? The surge that happens when you gather with your tribe for a winter walk.

Insects lay eggs in great quantities, just to make sure some survive

Insects lay eggs in great quantities, just to make sure some survive

Searching for the truths that fit today’s unanswered questions will propel me outdoors. I am newly motivated to learn a tree not just by looking at the obvious, but by the texture of its bark, by the shape of tomorrow’s leaves and the scars from yesterday’s petioles, by the litter at its feet and the green of its twigs.  Intimacy with individuals leads to understanding of community. It drives leaps of logic and thought connections. The surge propels us into the forest, and back again, to the tribe. It is an open tribe. Everyone is welcome.

So please join.
Just don’t expect to get fit quick.




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