A Wonderful Memory about Trees
Part of working on this art journal spread was making the leaves. I glued magazine snippets of various greens on a piece of printer paper, drew the leaf outlines on the blank side of the paper, then cut them out. In the process, I decided I wanted accurate outlines of a selection of real oaks, so did a bit of research. The memories that simple activity brought back surprised me.
I’m so glad the squirrel gave me the inspiration for this piece, “Know Your Oaks,” because it turned my mind to one of the most enjoyable episodes of my youth. You may be surprised to hear what it was—not a vacation to Florida, not playing cards with my grandmother or riding on the back of my grandfather’s motorcycle, and not even the spring of my senior year in high school which I got to spend lounging around at home with mononucleosis. No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was spending July and August the year I started ninth grade working on my leaf collection!
Everyone knew a leaf collection would be a big project for us ninth graders, and I was determined to get a head start. How well I remember riding my bike around the neighborhood, and even a little further, looking for intriguing specimens.
I don’t remember how many different kinds of tree leaves I collected, but I can still remember exactly where some of them grew. There was a hickory two doors down, and at the end of the block a nice stand of beeches. I don’t remember all the street names, but I can still picture the sassafras, the silver maples, the ash, sweet gum, and sour gum in situ. And there were buckeyes and several types of oaks, of which my favorite was the pin oak.
The farthest I ventured was across West Main Street to a block lined with elms. They were majestic trees, tall and arching. Walking down a street lined with elms was like walking in a soaring vaulted cathedral. But those were the days of the horrible Dutch Elm disease which was following its mad quest to kill each and every one of those trees. It was heartbreaking to see them go, a few last year, a few this year, and you knew there’d be more next year until they were all gone.
(Later I learned about the American Chestnut, which is now functionally extinct with the loss of 4 billion trees beginning in the nineteenth century. A fungus from China was responsible. But The American Chestnut Foundation is working diligently to bring back this iconic species. This photo is from that group, the ACF, which I have been inspired to join.)
All that leaf activity was 63 years ago now, and on some level, it’s surprising to me that I remember those adventures so vividly. But one remembers whatever was important, and collecting those leaves was important. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but maybe it was because it was one of the first times nature spoke to me. Another was falling in love with squirrels.
P.S. As I was researching the shapes of several species of oak leaves, I learned something new—the difference between “red oaks” and “white oaks.” White oaks have rounded lobes while red oaks have pointed ones. However, I did find a picture of a purportedly ‘red’ oak leaf that had pointed lobes. I suppose it’s easy to get mixed up!