Letter from Birdland: Seeing trees through the eyes of a forester

Letter from Birdland: Seeing trees through the eyes of a forester

I heard it was a "Naked Tree Walk," but we were bundled in Gore-Tex and heavy wool against the autumn chill and possible showers. Actually, it was the trees that were supposed to be naked, but only one was truly without leaves, and none of them were walking.

On a recent Saturday, I joined about 40 nature enthusiasts to stroll with Bill Vander Weit, retired city of Champaign forester, as he guided us through the urban forest of West University Avenue. Running late, as usual, I arrived at Victor Street and University Avenue to see a crowd converging on the sidewalk. I received a beautifully printed green booklet with detailed descriptions and careful line drawings of each of the 45 trees we would visit.

In the crowd were at least three News-Gazette columnists and a Prairie blogger. Do we know how to have fun or what?

Vander Weit carried a pruning saw and would reach up into the tree to clip a sample twig to give us a close-up of the leaves and sometimes the fruiting bodies as he showed us the differences between the varieties of maple or oak. Sometimes, these differences were subtle, and I gained an appreciation for close examination of the world around me.

For example, we may be acquainted with the general shape of the maple leaf. After all, it is on the Canadian flag. But that familiar red leaf is stylized, and Bill showed us how some leaves are very deeply lobed (silver maple) and others, like Norway maple, aren't. We are probably all familiar with the winged seeds — as kids, we called them helicopters, but they are really called samaras — but how many of us have looked carefully enough to notice that before they fall, they are joined in pairs? I noticed later that the shape of the pair can make a mustache if you hold it under your nose.

Sandy Mason of the University of Illinois Extension showed us one way to identify the variety of maple through the seeds by checking to see if the two seeds were joined at a roughly straight line (a handlebar mustache) or more droopy, like Frank Zappa's mustache.

We saw some trees that were atypical — like the sassafras with only unlobed leaves. I'm used to seeing sassafras saplings in the understory or at the edge of the woods. They are easy to recognize with their three varieties of leaves.

Vander Weit called these shapes the ghost, the mitten and the football. But here on the parkway, perhaps because it is not shaded by other, taller trees, this poor little tree was bereft of ghosts and mittens. Maybe because it is football season, it was showing its spirit.

Vander Weit told us about the aromatic roots (the roots of root beer) and the leaves used as file in gumbo. I pulled one of the leaves from a low-hanging branch and crumpled it to smell the fresh lime scent.

As we walked, I began to contemplate the oxymoron "urban forest." I'm used to thinking of a forest as a wild and unkempt place. Or rather, the wildness is the keeper of the balance in the forest. Here, though, the "forest" was well-trimmed and even planned.

Our leader spoke about the merits of various trees, how a particular cultivar might be problematic in certain ways. It might be prone to a divided trunk, which could easily split in high winds, or it might have drooping limbs that could interfere with traffic on a busy street. It might be messy, dropping fruit that causes a litter problem. It might be prone to escape cultivation, pushing out native species in forests that are truly wild and don't have such a watchful caretaker.

We walked on through the morning, enjoying the wind and the tree talk and the great variety in our urban forest. At one house, we saw a stately ginkgo, its fan-shaped leaves now a bright gold, fairly glittering in the wind. I stepped back to notice how the leaves hang off the branches almost like ferns.

A few doors down, one woman pointed to a stately golden tree in a backyard, the crown above the roofline. "Is that ginkgo?" she asked. We all paused for a moment to admire the trees and the leaves, to contemplate the wisdom of caring for our urban forest.

Walk in beauty; cultivate peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in forests, both urban and wild. The "University Tree Walk Booklet" has been spotted at the Champaign Public Library. The next Birdland Writing Retreat is Nov. 17. You can find more information on the Birdland Blog at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.