(HOST) Every spring, commentator Kerstin Lange is reminded
of an encounter she had in the woods many years ago that set in motion a whole
new web of discoveries.
(LANGE) It was a small bird, no
more than 6 inches tall and sitting high up in a tree top.
With its eye-popping red-and-black
plumage, identifying the bird as a scarlet tanager was not difficult. But
in the process, my previous catch-all mental category for birds became
painfully insufficient. Now I had to know what other birds were out there —
What was that tiny yellow streak over there? What about that
majestic-looking creature scanning the surface of the pond for movement from
its perch on a dead tree?
From then on, getting to know the
birds gave me a whole new way of discovering trees – not only as individuals,
but as "the woods" – and not just generic woods, but natural communities of
particular plants, soil conditions, and topography where birds and other
animals don’t just appear randomly. One aha-moment was that
wherever I could hear the song of the hermit thrush, I could also count on
smelling the scent of balsam firs.
Another discovery I have the
scarlet tanager to thank for is the kind of flower show many trees put on in
spring. Botanically speaking, the flower that really opened my eyes to
this phenomenon turned out not to be a flower at all — but it might as well
count as an honorary one, with its pastel tones of orange and cream and its
petals elegantly curved back, reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.
It belonged to an enormous shagbark hickory, and the supposed flower was
actually made up of the bud scales that unfurl with the hickory’s new
Flower or bud – from that day on, I
looked much more closely at both on my walks in the woods and around the neighborhood.
Noticing these details on the various species of maple became an exhilarating
spring hobby, and I had to be quick about it – the flowers on some trees only last
a few days.
Beyond the fun of getting to know
the trees better by their flowers, this new hobby tuned me in to patterns in
time – the flowering period of sugar maples compared to red maples compared to
boxelders, and to shifts in when the first flowers appear from one year to the
But these kinds of observations
have meaning beyond the personal. Records kept by observers across the
country show that the first flowering of lilac now occurs an average of 5 days
earlier than it did in 1955. Think of the fact that at least one-third of
the world’s agricultural crops depends on pollination by insects or other
animals. Considering how closely events in the natural calendar are
intertwined, we should pay attention to such changes.
To notice these kinds of things
about trees and birds – to transition from knowing the pieces of the natural
world to noticing patterns – takes time; just as getting to know people
does. As a reward, both open up never-ending worlds of learning and