“And tell me what those are, again?” my husband questioned me as we drove. “The ones with the pink flowers?”
“Mimosa.” The tree, not the drink.
Now, I don’t want to brag, but I do know a thing or two about trees.
The mimosa, for instance, is a showy, quick-growing thing with fuzzy, pink cotton-candy-ish flowers. One of my favorite features of the tree is that its leaves will close up if you run your hand along them, just as they also close up at night.
This I learned from doing a certain biology project when I was in the 10th grade, and now that another school year has officially commenced, I feel that it’s appropriate for me to reminisce about my own experience.
I went to Clarkston High School, not all that far from the DeKalb County home in which I’m now living. My biology teacher was a tiny, slim woman who barely cleared the top of the lab bench and looked as if her first choice of career might have been ballerina. I do wish I could remember her name.
But I remember a good deal of what I learned in her class, and that is mostly because she required us students to make a leaf collection. We had to collect 50 leaves: gather them, label them, draw an image of the tree from which they came, and write more scientific rigmarole that I don’t recall.
It was a challenge.
The first 30 leaves were pretty easy to obtain. The next 15 were difficult. And the last five were excruciating. I remember that one friend lived near a gingko tree, and for three weeks she was the most popular girl in the 10th grade.
We’d gather around her during lunch, panting, “You have a gingko? I’ll trade you two birch and a sycamore!”
Through the whole leaf collecting and documenting process, I learned the names of a lot of trees, and much of that knowledge has stuck with me.
Decades later, I have taken real pleasure in being able to impart that knowledge to my children, to walk them along a wooded path when they were young and curious and point out the reddish stem of a red maple or the wavy lobes of a white oak. I relished relaying the wondrous fact that a sassafras tree produces three different types of leaves: single-lobed, double-lobed (like a mitten), and tri-lobed.
There’s a primal comfort in being able to call a tree by its name and in the connection to the natural world that familiarity creates. Once you have taken the time to learn the distinctions in the details of something as ubiquitous as the leaves that surround you, your appreciation for creation blossoms.
And I don’t want to end this column sounding like a dotty old codger, but I hope that somewhere, in some classroom or in some dappled forest, there is a teacher showing leaves to a child and introducing them by name.