April 08, 2010

Time Among Trees

a grove of trees (dogwoods?) in Santa Anita Canyon
Hiking through the forests of Santa Anita Canyon, I passed through groves of different types of trees.  Most of the trees that grew in the moist soil of the shady canyon I didn't know well:  oaks, willows, dogwoods (I think those are dogwoods in the photo), and something that my friend David called a bay leaf tree.  I wondered if it had other names.  I'd heard of bay laurel trees.  Was that a different name for the same tree, or a different species or variety?  I didn't know.

Four miles into the hike, we came to Spruce Grove campground, and as I looked through the forest of oak trees, I saw some taller evergreens that I assumed were the namesake Spruce.  However, I do not know spruce trees very well, so I couldn't be sure.

A few days earlier, I had read a description of the trail that mentioned one area on a dry hill above the canyon, where jeffrey pines grew.  I was looking forward to seeing the jeffrey pines.  I know jeffrey pines.  I also know ponderosas, red firs, incense cedars, white firs, lodgepole pines, joshua trees, chinese elm, japanese zelkova, and fruitless mulberry.  I even remember when and where it was that I first got to know each of these trees.

I first met jeffrey pines at a campground near Green Valley Lake in the San Bernardino mountains, where my family went camping several times when I was young.  It was there that I first stuck my nose into the ridges of its bark and smelled its sweet sap.  It was there that I first noticed how the bark broke off into little jigsaw puzzle-shaped pieces.

I got to know Jeffrey pines a little better at Bethany Pines, a church camp I attended for three summers while I was in elementary school.  At Bethany Pines, I noticed how incredibly long the needles are on a Jeffrey pine -- about ten inches long -- and how they always grew in bundles of three.

I was looking forward to seeing jeffrey pines in Santa Anita Canyon because meeting a jeffrey pine is like meeting an old friend.

When I arrived on the ridge where the jeffrey pines were supposed to be, I looked for them, but all I saw were tall, dark trees with short needles.  They didn't have long needles in bundles of three.  They didn't have jagged, jigsaw puzzle bark.  They didn't have that sweet jeffrey pine smell.  In fact, they looked a lot like the spruce trees I had seen earlier.

They were very beautiful, but they weren't the trees I knew.

For a long time, I have recognized the fact that it is difficult for me to remember the names of people I meet.  However, my hike among the spruce trees made me think that it is probably more accurate to say that, as an introvert in a fast-paced world, it is hard for me to find the time to get to know people.  Once I take the time to know someone, I don't forget their name, in the same way that I can't forget the name of a tree that I've gotten to know. 

But that's the thing, isn't it?  Who among us has the time for such things?  In her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  "No one has time to lie on the deck watching stars, or to wonder how one's hand came to be, or to see the soul of a stranger walking by.  Small wonder we are short on reverence."  Barbara Brown Taylor then quotes the artist Georgia O'Keefe, who explained her success in painting flowers by saying, "In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven't time -- and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time."

Near the end of the hike, I sat on a rock and ate a snack that I had brought along.  Suddenly, a tree on the hillside across the stream caught my eye.  It was a young evergreen that was unlike any other in the canyon, with shaggy red bark covering its long, slender trunk that wasn't much thicker than a light pole.

"Hey, I know that tree!" I said out loud.  However, I doubted, because the location didn't match.  Seeing this tree here, I felt like a child who runs into his kindergarten teacher at the grocery store.  "What are you doing here?"

I climbed down from my rock, crossed the stream, and scrambled about ten feet up the hill on the opposite side to get a closer look.  Sure enough, it was a redwood -- the only redwood in the forest.  "It is you!" I thought to myself.

I got to know redwoods at several church camps I worked at in northern California.  They can get much taller than this particular tree, of course.  I figured that someone must have planted this tree here, probably a resident of one of the historic cabins that line this canyon.

After greeting this redwood, I finished my hike, grateful for the opportunity to see at least one arboreal old friend, and thankful for the opportunities I've had to spend some time getting to know at least some of the trees I've met in the world.

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