A few weeks ago a friend posted a photo online of his “favorite tree,” a magnificent sugar maple in his front yard, probably five feet around. In response, I posted one of my own favorites and soon friends and family were doing likewise. It got me to thinking: does everybody have a favorite tree? I really hope so.
On our little chunk of property in the township of Scandinavia, we have thousands of trees. When we first moved here it was almost solid with 30 or 40 year old aspen. Most were about five or six stories tall, only leafing out at the top, since we live on the north side of a ridge. Our gloomy woods had little to no understory and scarce wildlife, other than an occasional family of whitetails wandering through or a bunch of flying squirrels who liked the holes chipped out by Pileated Woodpeckers. When a ferocious straight line wind uprooted and sheared some of them off twenty years ago, we had the land logged.
What sprang up next was a cornucopia of species: ash, red and white oak, birch, basswood, silver maple, a few cherry, and of course more aspen. An army of wildlife also moved in to feast on seedlings, buds, raspberries, and hazelnuts. Now our little plot is once again solid with trees, making it hard to pick a favorite. It might just be the lonely, towering white pine that stands directly in front of our house. It’s got to be almost 100 years old and is one of only a few ancients on the ridge that were left either for seed or because they weren’t prime stock (ours has a double trunk). The broad bottom branches of our pine used to fan out to the ground, making a cool, damp tent. My neighbor Roy told me when he was a boy he’d frequently be sent to fetch their blind cow from beneath its branches, the poor animal lurching around in endless circles.
But my favorite could also be the scraggly paper birch in the fencerow across the road. Over the years we’ve lived here it has resolutely endured blizzards, ice storms, sieges of wild grape and leaf curl, the continual encroachment of the farmer’s reach, and the yearly assaults from bucks sharpening up their antlers. We occasionally have a few grouse around, which you can sometimes see silhouetted in the birch’s branches, probably hunting for its buds, or maybe, as the old timers in the neighborhood contend, sitting out their hangovers from eating grapes, fermented on the vine. I can’t help but admire that little tree’s pluck.
On the other hand, maybe it’s the white oak I sit in every gun deer season. It pokes up like a ship’s mainmast near the top of the ridge, a self-righteous, indignant taunt to lightening. Sitting up there in November, I can scan five miles of snowy countryside, a patchwork quilt of harvested corn fields, woodlots, and swamp. Squirrels like that tree anyway, and will scurry up and down, keeping the trunk between us, sometimes peeking around to wonder at the curious creature shivering away, cloaked in blaze orange.
We’re tree–rich in Wisconsin. Millions upon billions of trees, each one a brave, but silent testament to tenaciousness. Maybe by choosing favorites, our lives, as Shakespeare wrote, give them tongues. Tongues to tell their stories, as well as our own.