I’ve been standing in front of a tree, a young tree, still slight and unsure of itself, for the last few minutes trying to use the Woodland Trust’s app to identify it. The man, a South West Water employee who’s doing a bit of community gardening, stops a healthy distance away from me and looks a little awkward.
‘I saw you looking for ages and figured I’d help you out, it’s not a very common hazel here.’
I realise that he’s likely under the impression that I have an exceptional eye for trees and stopped at this precise hazel because, whilst cycling past, noticed that it wasn’t quite the usual hazel. Subtly off.
This is not why I’m standing at this tree at all but I’m enjoying playing a character that would be stopped for such a reason.
I’m standing at this hazel, bike between legs, phone out, because spring is absolutely off its rocker this year and given our restricted reach, I’ve suddenly started spending an awful lot of time amongst the trees in a five mile radius. Where I live, that’s a considerable amount of trees. And I don’t know them all by name.
I’ve decided to get to know my neighbours. Not my actual neighbours, obviously. I’m still a Briton in the 21st century, nothing’s changed there.
No, I’ve decided to get to know my arboreal neighbours. The ones that will offer shelter in a rain shower even if you turn up uninvited. The ones that push flowers out of wood that was all but a skeleton three months ago. The ones that saw the last pandemic and the one before that and the one before that. The ones that are still adjusting to English without ‘thou’, men without top hats and the ubiquitous nature of athleisure wear. Granted, we’re all still adjusting to that.
I used to know more of their names thanks to having a mother who’s a walking encyclopedia of flora. Over the years though, the names have slipped through the cracks in my memory, possibly making room for lesser information like tax codes and Things I Wouldn’t Believe Happened to These 90s Stars.
Short of sending a photograph to my mother of every leaf I come across via MMS (I’ve yet to broach the idea of Whatsapp), I need a good way of getting that information back. This is why I’m standing in front of a youthful tree with the Woodland Trust app which, helpfully, cannot identify such a tree.
Memory is a funny thing. Rote memorisation is not a particularly long term solution and the maxim ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ is undoubtedly true (with exception of pub quiz questions, which stir even the most deeply buried general knowledge).
Simply looking at pictures of trees and building a flashcard system is not going to cut it. I need more than just a collection of names. I need to understand why this tree is such and such and that tree is another. I need to understand the bark, the buds and the berries. It’s like learning a language, just one you can hug when times get tough.
I figured I’d start with the native trees but given Turkish hazel is the first new tree I’ve learnt to recognise, I’ve scrapped that. I’ll learn them as they come, context and all.