The telling twig
THE streets in the city where I grew up were lined with trees. Some politician had seen to it, my father said, either because he had a tie-in with a tree nursery, or he simply liked trees. I chose to think that the city official just liked trees as we did, but my father may have been right. The ginkgo was my favorite for a long time. My father pointed one out to me on our first walk in the ``down neck'' section of Newark, an area where homes and factories met. Trees are very important to a city, my father said -- they give shade and help make the air fresh, besides being aesthetically satisfying.
The ginkgo is odd looking, often sort of lopsided, with branches that go out at an eccentric angle. The leaves are fan-shaped like a maidenhair fern and turn a pale yellow in the fall. I learned that they are a very ancient species, perhaps prehistoric. Living fossils, my father called them. He said they had often been planted in the courtyards of Chinese temples and were considered sacred. It all sounded very romantic and I decided instantly that I liked ginkgoes better than ordinary, more common trees.
The ginkgo was replaced in my affections by the sycamore. I guess that is still my favorite. At first I thought it was just another maple, until I learned to distinguish it by its shaggy bark, as well as by its leaves which, while similar in shape to those of the maple, grow alternately off the stem, not opposite to one another. They were a little hairy underneath to the touch, also. A well-proportioned tree, its leaves are a particularly delicate green that gives a dappled shade.
There were many sycamores in the city in the 1920s -- they adjust well to dust and pavement. They grow in harmony with other trees, too, though I've never seen them in large groves like the oaks, maples, and birches.
The many varieties of oak and maple were hard for me to differentiate, and an occasional ash tree showed up to confuse me with its leaves so similar in shape to the elm. My father was patient, made naming trees a game, never told me that our walks were lessons. He let me think it was I who discovered various bark textures and leaf patterns, which seeds belonged to which tree, and why two oak trees that appear so alike can be so different. One oak tree holds on to its leaves all winter until the new buds push off the dry ones in the spring, others drop their leaves in late summer or early fall.
The oaks never seem to flaunt their age. Perhaps, my father said, the oaks stop growing taller after a while and just broaden out and get a gnarled look. We have burr, white, and red oaks on our property now (nature's plan, not ours). As a consequence, we have leaves to rake almost all year round.
No city person can overlook the ailanthus. The ailanthus grows anywhere, often pushing up through cement sidewalks, or in cracks along a step or wall. When small, it resembles sumac. Like the ginkgo it is a native of Asia. My father's story was that someone brought it to this country in an attempt to raise silkworms and then make silk. Perhaps silkworms like the leaves -- the flowers are smelly and the seeds make a mess. Some may call the ailanthus a weed, but it grows tall, gives fine shade, doesn't mind city grime, and merits its ``tree of heaven'' name.
Naming trees one by one as we walked past them on the street was my father's way of preparing me for seeing them together in the city parks. Three small parks brightened the business thoroughfare -- Washington Park, a commons set aside for a market years ago; Military Park, the place where soldiers once drilled and were mustered for the Revolutionary War; and Lincoln Park, the southern commons, where citizens could meet, stroll, and talk.
The elms in Lincoln Park seemed tremendous to a 10-year-old. I thought they must have been planted by Robert Treat when he founded Newark in the 1600s. Not likely, father said, as he set me at the task of identification. Here I was able to compare practically side by side, the bark, twig, leaf, and seed patterns of elm and ash, never again to be confused. Here also my father found a slippery elm. He pointed out the reddish bark's flat ridges and said there is a slippery substance under the bark that gives the tree its name.
Our walks and exploration became less frequent as I grew older and his increasing responsibilities took my father away more often. He had taught me to look, to see, to investigate. Now I was on my own. I wish I could tell my father that I have learned the importance of an aesthetic viewpoint in choosing and planting a tree. This in addition to the practical considerations -- how quickly a tree grows and whether it has a root system and branches that will not interfere with utility lines and wires. Each tree that village officials select to provide us with the benison of shade, fresh air, and beauty must also be compatible with its surroundings and have good manners so as not to litter the neighborhood.
My first love, the ginkgo, is often as much disliked as admired. Unless specially treated, it bears a fruit that is foul smelling. For years after I left New Jersey I didn't see any ginkgo trees. Then one day I found a row of charming, well-behaved ginkgoes lining the sidewalk around Watt's china store in Milwaukee. It was like meeting an old friend.
Last week's storm twisted one of the great oaks along our boulevard and brought it down. After the cleanup I looked at the large sawdust circle in the grass, all that is left of the magnificent tree we have enjoyed. The village tells me another tree will be planted to replace it. A ginkgo? No, perhaps a sycamore.