I Hope I Will Never See a Forest Tree That Will Baffle Me (With Apologies to Joyce Kilmer)

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On the last day of class of my freshman year at the NYS College of Forestry those of us who made the cut were given a five page mimeographed handout with over 100 trees and their scientific names identified. At the top of the page it was written "TO BE MEMORIZED IN ITS ENTIRETY BY SEPTEMBER". On one side was the tree common name and on the other side its Latin name. I created study cards with one name on the front and the second name on the reverse. (Many of which I mispeeled.) Our course in Dendrology (look it up) consisted of 3 weekday classes of 2 hours plus a Saturday morning lab (outdoor & indoor) of four hours for the entire year. (No cuts permitted) You miss one you made it up. The student was shown the tree, shrub or green thing one time only and you were on your own.

At the beginning of each class twentyfive exhibits were on display which you were expected to identify by common and scientific name by the next class. Each of us was required to create a "leaf book." The leaf, along with its salient features, was on one page. The obverse page had a dried sample of the leaf in wax paper. Along with the correct spelling. I learned about poison ivy the hard way (by chewing on a twig). My practical training soared after that experience. We saw each leaf once. This went on for the entire year, with the emphasis changing as the seasons changed. Leaves, twigs, bark, fruiting bodies, etc.

It was a strict memorization and regurgitation method of learning. Nothing seemed to flow from one element to the next, until this knowledge became my "bread and butter." When I had to testify as to the identification of trees referenced in old notes and identify and differentiate woods of white, red oak and pines, I never appreciated the efforts my professors put into their work. In fact, in one trial two experts argued over whether a tree was a basswood or cucumber tree. With a gun I was able to "shoot" a fruiting body from the tree proving to the judge it was a basswood. I have since gone on to disseminate this knowledge learned, both technical and practical, to students, surveyors and anyone who would listen. I had to testify with absolute certainty this leaf came from that tree.

In one rural boundary contract involving 1200 corners and nearly 500 miles of line the requirements were that new bearing trees would be created and identified. On the final inspection I supervised the compliance review. The surveyors had misidentified over 800 bearing trees. Because "time was of the essence," the contract was held to be in default and large fines were levied.

That is why I am writing this; I would like to pass on some 60 years of practical experience molded with my education (technical, field learning and book learning) so that the student, as well as the old "grizzled" veteran will be able to "know what tree that be."

As I sit here and write this, many memories are recalled about trees in my life. The maple tree we extracted sap from near my front door. The warm summer July picnic at Pack Forest under the virgin white pines and the dry smell of pine needles on the dusty forest floor. Chewing on sassafras twigs to cool our mouths and, the best of all, the wild persimmon tree in Jackson, Miss. where my daughter Nora would sit and wait in her stroller for the fruit to drop, hoping she would beat the raccoons out for the meal. She would wheel to the tree in her stroller and pick them up to eat.

One time we marked a chaining station in an "island" of mature sugar maple in the forest of white pine. We cut into one tree and discovered it was "bird’s eye" maple. Then we cut others and all were "bird’s eye" maple. And the time we sat on a ledge of rock, over which we had painted a red line six inches wide and 50 feet long, to let them know here to stop. Then taking a nap only to wake several hours later with the setting sun shining its radiance on the oranges, reds and yellows of the hardwoods and having to "come off the mountain" in the dark hoping we would not slip. And seeing for the first time a tap root of a longleaf pine that went some 5 feet into the ground.

On "Walt’s Little Acre", actually .220465 acres according to my latest ALTA survey, I have been able to plant a total of 35 different species and more are coming. Some I grew from seed, some volunteers, and some I purchased, plus one I "lifted in the dead of night" from an abandoned lot at the end of my street while wearing a disguise. My neighbor who just spent $9,000 to place a new zoyzia lawn asks "When is it enough?" I answer "Soon, soon." Some of the trees I have are gingko, horse chestnut, black walnut, pecan, a fig that came from a 100-year-old tree that my wife’s grandmother planted after the Civil War in Mississippi, hickory, holly, redbud, 3 maples, 3 oaks, ash, dogwood, sourwood, cherry, apple, peach, persimmon, quaking aspen and some others.

Spring is here so I just placed my 2016 order. I have added butternut and a blight resistant chestnut. I remember (when cruising timber in Mississippi) when we found a living chestnut that had defied the Chestnut blight. A rare find. A 1 in a million tree. The young forester with us did not recognize it and thought it was a "cull" tree. He killed it with poison. We should have summarily hung him from the closest hanging tree. I shall never forget it.

I started this project with the plan in mind to produce PowerPoint presentations in several areas that have been significant to me: forestry, tree identification, surveying, public speaking. I want these young men and women to realize the potential of having an interest that will stay with them until death. When I was in college I collected black spruce seeds, germinated them, and then placed 2-0 stock in the front yard of my home, only to have them bulldozed when my home was condemned for urban renewal. My father forgot to reserve them when he signed the deed. (For two years these plants made the annual pilgrimage, to and from college.)

Today, I must keep my possession and claim of ownership to a residential lot that is 195 feet by 210 feet. It is one of six lots in my subdivision that was not ravaged by the builders in 1958. All of the original trees were left. Eight post oaks with diameters over 25 inches. As I stated I have supplemented the original trees with many others. My neighbors hate my leaves. And I hate their sterile lawns.
Walt Robillard has been surveying since 1948. His experience includes teaching in colleges and continuing education seminars, and writing. He has worked in private industry and spent 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service as a Regional Surveyor and expert witness. He is an attorney, forester, licensed surveyor, and expert witness, and has co-authored several survey books.

A 2.632Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE