Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hiking with Mr. Henry

This past weekend, I was a kid again, as I went on a Girl Scout field trip to camp. I volunteer with this Girl Scout troop, and as I've written about before, scouting is an amazing opportunity for girls to get out into nature. It turns out, it's also an amazing opportunity for this big girl to learn all about the flora in Texas.

I've lived in Texas for six years. In my home state of Washington, I felt as though I was able to identify the most common trees and animals by their common names. I was no expert, by any means, but I could find chamomile, honeysuckle, thimbleberries, echinacea, maples and sycamores, blackberries and bobcats. Texas, however, is another story. Immersed in my busy city life, and surrounded by friends who are also transplants from other parts of the country, I have learned a total of three (count them - 3!) Texas plants and animals.

Live oak.



Luckily, at Girl Scout camp we went on a hike with Mr. Henry, the camp forester, who gave us some insight into the other living things all around us.

First, the mighty yaupon!

I never realized that the street in Houston called "Yaupon" is named after this red-berried beauty. This relative of the holly (which we also saw on our hike) has the scientific name of Ilex vomitoria, so-named because Europeans believed that the Native Americans used it to induce vomiting during purification rituals.

Looking similar, but with fuschia berries, is the American beautyberry, which I have seen often in my walks at the Houston Arboretum. Time and time again, I've thought to myself, what are those beautiful effusions of berries, breaking against the foliage like fireworks? Now, I know.

Somehow, when you know the names of things, the world seems a bit more right.

Mr. Henry also let us in on the secrets of the multitude of oaks growing throughout the woods. To a girl from evergreen country, there's something majestic and mysterious about oaks. And while nothing compares to the grandeur of a live oak, learning the names of water oaks, white oaks, pin oaks, red oaks ... I felt like I was finally "getting" the Texas landscape. Up above, you see the leaf of of the water oak.

We also came across the star-shaped leaves of the sweetgum, a tree whose resin, when mixed with tobacco, was smoked by Mexican emperors.

We learned about the acorn flour that settlers made, the seed pods that could double as balls for playing catch, the holly decorations that most of us have only seen in plastic form. The girls climbed a tree, scrambled through a rock labyrinth, and scrabbled for deer tracks in the iron-rich mud. And as we walked, Mr. Henry's stories hit home.

In Mr. Henry's childhood (in the last century, but not really so long ago) people had a certain level of familiarity with nature. They knew the names of things. And knowing the names of things is important. We are close to the things we understand and use, and those are things that we want to preserve.

But when we walk, every day, under the live oaks, and never know their names, what value do they have to us? Why inconvenience ourselves, to save a tree or a berry bush or a bird?

The girls grew restless with all the old stories and the names, but I think some of it sank in. Even though the hike exhausted them, in the end I could see that, though they couldn't articulate what was different, something had changed.

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