Not Junk

There is a young-ish tree in my yard that is enveloped in grapevine, for which I must take some responsibility. I’m a neglectful yard-keeper and I let things run amok out there, though in my defense this is Indiana and the plant life here runs wildly amok no matter what one does.

At any rate, the top of the tree now bends precariously over the roof of my (also neglected) garage. And so a friend is coming over on Friday with a chain saw and we will attempt to remove the grapevine, whose main stem is as big around as a baseball bat. Yikes.

The tree around which this vine is wrapped is a “junk tree,” according to a landscaper who came to give me an estimate for removing a dozen saplings and overgrown shrubs from the back of my lot last year, where they were slowly engulfing the garage. He offered to include it in his removal estimate, but it was far enough away from the garage that I didn’t think it was necessary. Plus, I took offense at his characterization of this tree, of any tree, as “junk,” because of course I did.

It has a name, I wanted to say, but I didn’t, because I didn’t know what that name was.

Later, I tried to identify it, first using my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees, but the results were inconclusive. From its compound leaf structure it could be one of several species; a flower or a seed pod or a fruit or nut would have helped with identification, but there were none of those in evidence. It’s a young tree, perhaps too young to flower or seed. Or perhaps it was too early or late in the year for either of those.

Online guides were scarcely more useful, but I’ve now narrowed it down to three species, maybe four.

It could also be none of the above.

My ignorance regarding the trees of my neighborhood can be attributed in part to the fact that I’m not from here. I’m from elsewhere. Several elsewheres. But I’ve been here long enough that you’d think I’d have absorbed some of this knowledge by sheer osmosis.

Alas, no.

I know the make, and sometimes the model, of most of the cars parked on my street. I know the names of all the streets in my neighborhood. I also know the logos of hundreds if not thousands of corporate entities. But I do not know the name of this tree that shares my back yard, its genus or species, its habits, what its seeds look like, how long its family has lived here, on this hill, in this ecosystem, whether its ancestry pre-dates the European colonization of this continent or is, like me, a more recent arrival.

Bill McKibbon, in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, wrote of this phenomenon, peculiar to our culture, in which we are inundated with so much information about the built world of humans but know so little of the natural world in which we’re embedded. Which makes it hard for us to understand this place in which other creatures, like the trees in my yard, “are not there for you — they’re there because the world belongs to them, too.”

It’s a subject more recently visited by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her lovely book, Braiding Sweetgrass, where she writes:

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance.

Coffee tree, I’m thinking. Maybe ash. Possibly walnut. A teacher. Not junk.

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