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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Saturday, May 26, 2012


A favorite game when I was young was Categories. For best results, it needed a large and somewhat literate crowd, so whenever my mother's clan got together, I would beg shamelessly for a game, my brothers and I proudly the kids among the adults. Each player made a 25-square grid on a piece of paper; then suggestions for categories on one axis were tossed out (e.g., Trees) until five were agreed to (obscure categories being nixed, regretfully), and one person was nominated to suggest a five-letter word for the other axis (WATCH, say), upon which the table was given 10 minutes to fill in the squares (Willow, Ash, etc.). One received more points for originality, that is, for coming up with an answer that no one else did. The scoring system otherwise remained pleasingly arcane, with pitched arguments as to points awarded/deserved and laughing capitulations to the insistence of fathers.

I'm reminded of this game when I look from the deck at the various conifers in view. They are obviously alike from a distance, firs and spruce and pines, and not so obviously alike from close, in needle (round or flat; singly or multiply attached) and twig (smooth or rough) and bark (ditto) and cone (upright or pendant). In a fit of teenage categorical imperative, I get out my Sibley Book of Trees to confirm.

Sibley, however, has been festooned with post-it notes, more than 50 of them, and I'm distracted from the mission. We lent the book to a young friend and each pink strip marks a species identified as growing in his immediate vicinity. Not surprisingly, in this evergreen state of Maine, almost a quarter of them were conifers. I'm impressed with his perspicacity and enthusiasm, jealous of his unbroken time in the woods, wondering at his patience in differentiating among jack pine and pitch pine and larch, white spruce and red spruce and black spruce. In some nostalgia I think that one used to want to know the name of everything, where it fit in the universe, what its distinguishing characteristics were. It was a way, I suppose, of making sense of the world, or more proudly, trying to control it.

I'm comforted to read Sibley's introduction, however, and realize that the very definition of a tree is actually quite hard to pin down, the problem being those pesky shrubs that act like trees, and vice versa. One woody stem, or multiple? Thick trunk or skinny? Short or tall? Crown of foliage or not? Sibley even indulges in a bit of poesy: if you can walk under it, it's a tree; if you have to walk around it, it's a shrub. I like that. As my days get more sanguine, I'm more and more pleased just to call that magnificent plant growing on the edge of the shore "tree."

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