University of Michigan Biological Station: Family Tree

     Our inexperience with the forest ahead of us was revealed by the hodgepodge of outfits we wore. Some of us wore sandals; others chose pants and regretted it; some had hats, and none of us had a clue as to what the day would hold. The thin trunks, many devoid of branches, led my eyes upward and tilted my head back. A slight breeze combed through the tall canopy and shifted the leaves from equilibrium, making flecks of light dance across the forest floor. Our shoes crunched down on decaying leaves, live plants, rotting logs and twigs.

     We laid our measuring tapes into the foliage, each step a bit further from the concrete. Who knew how difficult it would be to walk in a straight line? One of us took the tape in hand, and the other three directed the explorer to the right or left. Our task was to take inventory of the trees within two meters of the tape to learn about the forest’s composition.

     Before that day, I labeled all of these distinct woody plants into a catchall category: tree. Somewhere in my subconscious, I knew that different species existed, but I had never seen trees as distinct entities. I did not realize how much there was to know about them. The bark, the leaves, the soil in which they grew, and their other characteristics were no longer generic. Bark could be rugged or smooth. Soil had sand or silt. The Maples divided further into Striped, Red, and Sugar; the Pine family included Jack, Red, and White!

     With each additional step I took, the assumptions I had about trees fell to the floor and sat there with the leaves of autumns past. My appreciation for each species grew as high as the canopy as I strayed further from the transect line. I no longer saw trees as an anonymous group of plants. Instead, they became individuals of a family, with likes and dislikes, each contributing in their own way to the forest. On the car ride back, I caught myself looking at the trees zooming past and wondering, “Is that a White Pine?”

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