Leafing through the tall wonders of Guilford

City Diary

CITY DIARY: Rene J. Muller

January 02, 2002

I took advantage of the warm, dry fall to look seriously at trees.

I looked mostly in Guilford, where I live, but in other places, too. I reached out for help.

I bought the National Audubon Society Field Guide to American Trees, Eastern Region. Its best feature is the sharp color plates of bark, leaves, flowers, cones, keys, acorns, nuts and fruits that let you identify just about any tree in this area.

Years ago, I found a used copy of Our Trees: How to Know Them, by Clarence M. Weed. Besides a literate and informed text, this volume has wonderful black-and-white photographs by Arthur I. Emerson of common trees and their leaves.

Naming an object begins the process of differentiating that object from others. Naming the first tree initiates one into the world of trees. Telling white oaks from red oaks is relatively easy because the limb structure, bark and leaf of each tree is readily recognizable. Distinguishing the sugar maple, red maple and silver maple, common in most parts of Baltimore City, poses roughly the same challenge.

Telling a red oak from a black oak, which is not common in the city, is a greater challenge. The red oak has a simpler limb structure, straighter branches and a smoother bark. Though red oak leaves are larger than black oak leaves, and have more lobes and shallower sinuses, it takes practice to distinguish them.

The leaves of the post oak have uncommonly rounded or squarish lobes, with an irregular pattern of sinuses, some cutting almost to the central vein. Ironically, the tree with a whimsical leaf is named for its utility in making fence posts.

It is rarer than the ubiquitous white oak, a relative. I know of just a handful of post oaks in Guilford. One is at the corner of Underwood Road and Old Cold Spring Lane, just across from the Guilford Pumping Station.

For years, while driving up and down North Charles Street in the fall, I ignored the optic-yellow, baseball-sized spheres that hugged the gutters just south of Wyndhurst Avenue and just south of Lake Avenue. These curiosities come from the Osage orange tree, also known as the bow wood, because the Osage Indians used the wood to make bows. There is a small Osage orange on Old Cold Spring Lane, a few yards east of the post oak on Underwood Road.

I nailed my first cottonwood tree by identifying its leaf in the Audubon book. The triangular cottonwood leaf is convex at the base, and has a long, tapered, sharply pointed apex. Rounded, forward-pointing teeth rim the leaf.

The tree that I spotted was tall, and at least 2 feet across at the base. It grew between the road and the sidewalk in front of the house on the northwest corner of Wendover Road and St. Paul Street. The bark is medium gray at the bottom, with rough, vertical ridges. Halfway up the trunk, the bark becomes lighter gray. The skin here is smooth and shiny, with horizontal striations, and catches the sunlight. While I was communing with this cottonwood, the owner of the house pulled in the driveway and told me that he had planted the tree 10 years earlier. It was 3 feet high.

The shagbark hickory I found at the edge of the clearing at the top of Oregon Ridge was more of a recovery than a discovery. There was a perfect shagbark on the lawn next-door to the house where I grew up, in Mount Kisco, N.Y. The shagbark can be instantly recognized by its coarse, light-gray bark that peels away from the trunk in vertical sheets.

We first experience the world as an undifferentiated whole. Gradually, we begin to assign meanings to what we separate out and name. To notice a tree that went unnoticed for years and then to learn its name is a small epiphany. The new tree, which is both similar to and different from other trees already known, forces one to acknowledge that more of one's seemingly familiar world remains undifferentiated, and so unknown.

Today's writer

Rene J. Muller, an alumnus of the Johns Hopkins University, evaluates psychiatric emergency room patients and has written several books about mental illness, including Beyond Marginality (Praeger, 1998). He lives in Guilford.

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