Saturday, November 17, 2007

Liking Liquidambar ~ a true story of questionable mysticism

(edit-when I first posted this, I left out the photos, without which this post doesn't make sense, she says, smacking forehead!)

At about age 8, I discovered library book sales. My first purchase was a large format "Guide to North American Wildflowers" I would sit on the floor with it smothering my lap and pore over the botanical descriptions, sound out the latin names and dream of growing up to be a botanist.
That's how it starts, you know, with just one book.
Then came the Little Golden Guides, the Peterson guides, the obscure field guides published by small university presses.
It doesn't end with wildflowers, you know, it expands to trees and shrubs, butterflies and moths, rocks and minerals, fungi, mosses, liverworts, stars, constellations....and of course, if you have the books, you have to go out and look for the stuff.....and that's how the unjustified hours and hours and hours in the woods start.
Such a serious addiction, and at such an early age, too!
I loved the names; oak, hickory, maple - quercus, carya, acer.
But sweetgum..what a great name! Liquidambar styraciflua !

I said it a bunch of times. It became one of my favorite trees.Partly because of that cool name, but also those groovy middle-earth-looking seed pods, and of course, who could not love a star shaped leaf?

So when I moved here, I noted that in all my wanderings there was only 1(one) sweetgum to be found in this entire holler. As a matter of fact, I noticed that there weren't any in town, either, or on any of the farms between here and the river, that I could see....And when there is only one of something, it gets elevated in status.
Back to the story...On that particular morning, not too many days ago, I was staring out the back kitchen window, squinting, trying to see if I could make out that sweetgum, up the holler a ways in the overgrown field. I new it was pointless to check for sweetgum balls to bring back in my pockets and spread around the house.... no tree seeds of any kind this year, because of the freeze, but I was wondering if its leaves where bright yellow or bright red.

Mamma calls and in conversation about a past event, she says referentially "oh, that was way back about the time that the big sweetgum fell on the barn, you remember?" They have a lot of Liquidambar in west Tennessee where the folks live. Odd coincidence, I think, that she should mention this particular tree, on this particular morning.
I said to my oldest son who was leaving for work, "I need to walk up to that sweetgum and see if it's leaves are fully turned". He grinned at me, "an important mission, I'm sure" he said as he pawed through a mostly empty refrigerator looking for something of substance to eat on his way out the door to work.
Work. Oh yea. I can't go check on the sweetgum, I'm supposed to be working. So I fire up the computer and stall a little before starting "real" work. I read a couple of my favorite blogs. Two is my limit for each day, because blog reading, no matter how good the writing, does not get the baby no shoes, the mules no hay, and me no firewood. Needless to say, I am real behind on my reading...and then with a disgraceful lack of willpower, after finishing my cue of two., I break my rule and sainter on over to Via Negativa, where Dave has started a series "Poetry for Naturalists" and the first thing I see in the entry is a reference to "liquidambar".
Oh goody! second coincidence! I am instantly sidetracked. Coincidences are high ranking permission-givers to sidetracked behavior in my unwritten book of mystical rules.
It takes great effort to get back on track, but I do, but my heart is antsy and restless as I work in the shop, thinking about sweetgums, writing, poetry, fall leaf colors and how nice it would be to spend the days wandering with the camera in the woods, instead of freezing my fingers off at the drill press, but I count my blessings as I warm my fingers around my tea cup and try not to draw mystical connections and significance.
Near the end of the day, my youngest son calls "hey,wanna ride to Lebanon with me? (45 minutes away, the nearest "real city")....well, I hesitate, "I should get ahead with my work..." He tells me that I need to get out more, and he'll feed me. So I ride with him to take his girlfriend to work and the entire ride I enjoy the company but have one eye out the window, watching every tree, and as hard as I search, there are no sweetgums. As you cross the Cumberland river and move south to Lebanon, the topography changes to a kind of limestone barrens, lotsa cedar and oak, and when we reach the city, lots of yard trees, silver maples and (pa-tooey) bradford pears, but not much diversity.

This makes my solitary sweetgum in the holler seem even rarer...a loner, kind of like me, worth a poem, perhaps.

Youngest takes me to dinner, and when we get back out to his car, a leaf is stuck to the it an oak, or maple, or any of the street trees we have passed under?, it is this!!

"Look! Look!" I said excitedly "Liquidambar Styraciflua! what does this mean, Mr. Natural?"
Son looked, grinned and shook his head at me indulgently and climbed into the drivers seat.


Dave November 19, 2007 at 3:12 PM  

Terrific story, and the sort of thing that is better left unexplained. I'm glad my post played a small role in the chain of coincidences, though credit really goes to Chris Clarke, whose post I was quoting there. (Do you read Creek Running North? Possibly the best nature blog on the internet.)

Larry November 19, 2007 at 11:36 PM  

I loved your story. The only Sweet Gums in this part of the country are planted yard trees, but they do have wonderful fall coloration, and it varies widely from tree to tree.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, you might consider editing the word near the beginning of the post "pouring" to "poring", which I'm sure is what you meant.

Nice blog! I'll be back...

Cady May November 20, 2007 at 4:41 AM  

No I don't and yes, I will, thank you for the directional.

Thank you, and now I will have to wonder where you live that sweet gums are planted as yard trees.
And I appreciate the correction. Even though I am always so pressed for time, and am messy and informal by nature (a polite way of saying hillbilly) I really should take more care with my sloppy writing in the future.

cyndy November 20, 2007 at 7:53 AM  

Love this post, love the sweetgums.
My grandmother had one in the side yard...we climbed around on it when we were kids...nice memories.

"Coincidences are high ranking permission-givers to sidetracked behavior in my unwritten book of mystical rules." OH YES, infact they are messages and omens to pay attention to!

(oh my, I thought blogs were suposed to be full of gramatical and speling erors..heh hehe!)that is why they are blogs....

Anonymous November 20, 2007 at 8:32 AM  

You lead a magical life. That's the only explanation. Great story!


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