Walking around our neighborhood recently and admiring the colors of the autumn leaves, we were approached by a fellow who, like us, was gazing at trees.
“Know what kind of tree that is?” he asked, pointing to a tall, broad-leaved, all-yellow, hickory I’d been checking out months earlier before the winds of Hurricane Irene launched its plumping nuts to the ground.
Without waiting for an answer, he said, “It’s a hickory.” He said he sold firewood, hence his knowledge of trees, and proceeded to point out others, including a nearby sweet gum he called a “trash tree” because its grain was so skewed it couldn’t be split. (For me, sweet gums, with their star-shaped leaves, grab the spotlight this time of year as they sport multiple colors, some of which we lack simple words for: pink-peach-yellow crosses, brick reds with flames of burgundy, and lemon yellows dotted with spring green.)
Although I appreciated the fellow’s interest in trees, I don’t really care for conjoining “trash” and “tree.” When I was a kid in Florida, the word “trash” was applied to “Australian punk trees” and to Eucalyptus. The punk tree on our then-dirt road anchored the driveway of a small cottage catty-corner from our house to the dirt road. It was an interesting tree; I enjoyed peeling off its papery bark. I did not know it as Malaleuca—the tree used to make tea tree oil—and didn’t know that it was “invading” the Everglades. And the Eucalyptus? Fond, fond memories of climbing and hanging out in one of them.
So I grant that applying “trash” to something is an emotional button for me, but let’s peel back the bark and get to the heart of it: When we call a tree “trash,” is it because it doesn’t do something for us that we want it to do? Its grain is too kinked for us to be able to split easily? Or its flowers cause the honey to go all funny? Would this mean the “trashiest” of trees have absolutely no use in the human’s world? Say it ain’t so. Keep in mind (and heart and lungs) that trees are the Great Respirators of Earth. And be more precise. Rather than calling it trash, say, “It doesn’t serve this particular purpose.” Recognize that plants have their own destinies, needs, reasons for being; you find this out pretty quickly when you sit with one for any length of time. They’ll tell you, sometimes sweetly, sometimes angrily, what they’re about. And a lot of times, it has nothing to do with us. My hope is more people will sit with plants and learn from them. They could teach Language Arts 101.