“What kind of tree is that?”

It may well be that when I did get started writing I chose to inhabit the ignominious swamp of children’s literature because I knew I was just not good enough to write real books about human relations and sex–not good enough because I don’t know my ash from my elm.
–Daniel Pinkwater in Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights

That’s from one of my favorite parts of the book– Pinkwater recounts Isaac Babel’s story “The Awakening,” in which a boy who wants to be a writer despairs because he doesn’t have a “feel for nature” or know any names and facts about the natural world. In the bad biopic of Gustav Mahler that Pinkwater was watching, that bit was stolen wholesale and plunked in, so that suddenly little Gustav is being lectured by the Wise Old Man: “How can you be a composer when you don’t know the names of trees?”

Pinkwater thinks it’s ridiculous in both cases. I’m happy to join him in the ignominious swamp, but I do want to know, and I was excited for Tree Identification class at Irving Park this morning. The prospect of fast-food breakfast on the way sealed the deal.

We got to the park at nine a.m. and followed some likely-looking tree nerds (rain gear, knapsacks) to the picnic shelter, where we got handbooks and doughnuts and reflective VOLUNTEER vests so no one would run us over or call the cops as we gathered in front of their houses to inspect the “street trees” in the planting strip. I saw two looks askance at my McDonald’s cup, but it wasn’t all Concerned Progressives. One guy was barefoot and informed us that lindens are one of the rare trees with edible leaves, which have a pleasant, mild flavor. Indeed they did.

Other tidbits:

  • Honey locusts don’t grow that well here; they’re always a little thin and spindly. Therefore, they’re planted in front of the Portland Building so that people can look up through the leaves and see Portlandia!
  • The wood of dogwood trees was used to make skewers called “dags,” and the tree was called “dagwood,” which morphed into “dogwood.”
  • The dawn redwood is Oregon’s official state fossil. It grew here for millions of years, but was thought to be long extinct. In the 1940s, Chinese scientists found them growing in Hubei province in central China. A team from Harvard brought some back to the U.S. in 1948, and today I saw one in somebody’s yard, looking sassy.

So watch my stories for tree names– maybe I’ll become a bona fide regional writer yet. ;)