In my heart, I’m sort of a rugged outdoorsman, full of wood-lore and adventure. Of course, my heart is misinformed. If you know me, you’ll surely be quick to point out that this inner desire isn’t necessarily reflected on the outside. Like, in my actual life. (I will note that it is often observed – principally by my wife – that my wardrobe consists almost entirely of earth tones. So see! See! It’s my inner wilderness-wanderer leaking out in my shirts!)
But in truth, I have always had a desire to know stuff about the outdoors, like how to start fires or recognize a bird by its call. Or how to identify types of trees. I always wanted to be able to walk through the woods and note – with a casual woodman’s tone – that red oak over there, or the stand of birch along the path. And hark, the call of a red bellied, North American tiger finch!
Occasionally, I have come across that category of North American tree books that carefully and thoroughly catalog every possible tree species from California to Nova Scotia. These have proved completely overwhelming and unhelpful. To actually use one of these books to identify an unknown tree in my backyard, I would either have to page through endless pictures and descriptions hoping to stumble upon a leaf-sketch resembling the ones littering my yard, or I would have to know something about the tree beforehand to help narrow my search. But I don’t know much about the tree. That’s why I’m using the book!
Several years ago, however, I stumbled upon the Arbor Day Foundation’s What Tree is That? This book was different than any other identification book I’d ever seen. For $15 I picked it up and have been enjoying it ever since.
What Tree is That? works kind of like a “choose your own adventure” book. It starts with a very basic question about your mystery tree and then, depending on your answer, it directs you to another question and another, each one helping to narrow down the possibilities until enough information has been taken into account to identify the species in question.
It’s a great book to get you started rising to your wood-lore aspirations. While it doesn’t contain nearly as many species as those comprehensive books do, by limiting itself to the most common trees in North America it makes the task of identifying trees in a walk through the woods much more manageable. I’ve learned a lot about trees in general and how they are distinguished from one another, and I’m much more competent to pass on some bits of knowledge to my kids when we are outdoors together (which is, of course, part of homeschooling).
The book is also a good jumping off point to make the more comprehensive guides useful. This summer I came across The Sibley Guide to Trees at my in-law’s cabin and had a better grasp on how to handle this mammoth (and awesome!) book because of my time spent in the grammar of What Tree is That?
So, if you’ve an inclination towards the woods and the trees that compose them, or want to do some identification with your kids (homeschooling or otherwise), I heartily recommend What Tree is That? Here’s a link to the book at Amazon (oh no, I paid too much!) if you’re interested.