A Few Lines on Striped Maples

April 1, 2008

Livingisdetail, winner of the Name-and-genderize-the-baby-sea-turtle contest, has won 500 words on the topic of her choice.  She gave me two possibilities; I chose the topic, “If you were a tree, which tree would you be and why?”

striped maple
I couldn’t live without trees. While the woods are only one type of environ- ment, they are as much a part of me as my fingers. Trees have cooled me, comforted me, hidden me, held me ever since I can remember. I would rather hike a wooded trail than stroll a sandy beach or dine in a fancy restaurant. Don’t get me wrong: invite me and I will come. I’ve traveled to a number of places now, and marvelled at many landscapes, from Ireland’s Burren to Hawaii’s pahoehoe fields to New Zealand’s Franz Joseph Glacier; but I couldn’t live without trees.

Now I’m asked to imagine being a tree. Uh-oh. This is the sort of soul-baring exercise from which, if accidentally caught in one, I excuse myself for a potty break and run away from the conference centre for two hours until it’s over. Turtle pulls in her limbs, locks up her carapace, and rolls downhill into the pond. No arm-swaying while mouthing someone else’s homemade liturgy for me, nuh-uh, I’m outa here!

Not because it’s meaningless, but because it’s too personal. To me, a group of people pretending to be trees together is as wrongheaded as an orgy. Writing about it, though, is much less threatening. I can take my time, research, reflect, rewrite, until my response feels right.

If I were a tree, then, I think I would be a Striped Maple. In the photo above, you can see a nice example of one, about to be elbowed out of the scene by the Sugar Maple whose leaves, in the upper right hand corner, are the largest ones in the picture. The casual observer, in fact, would likely identify the main tree as a rather spindly Sugar Maple.

In comparison to its cousin, the little-known Striped Maple hasn’t much to offer. Its maximum height is a third of the other; it lives for a fraction of the other’s lifespan; much of that time is spent as a sapling or a shrub; it doesn’t provide syrup; its weak wood is good only for pulp; it doesn’t adorn any flag. It is regularly poisoned as a pest by forestry workers. It is overshadowed by Sugar Maples, American Beech, Red Oak, and the glorious White Pine. What good is it?

Maybe you’re asking the wrong creatures, whispers the Creator. Try asking the Snowshoe Hares, who chew its shoots. Or the Ruffed Grouse, Red Squirrels, and Chipmunks, who eat its seeds. Or the Moose, who browse on it so often that it is also called Moose Maple or Moosewood. Or the little birds, afraid to nest in the canopy, prefering its low branches. Or the burnt land, who welcomes it as one of the first trees to begin the forest anew. Or if you must ask humans, ask the artists and photographers who notice its beautiful striped bark, its leaves the width of two hand spans, its flowers strung like tiny bells, a dozen to a strand, its bright yellow autumn foliage set against its red twigs. Ask them. They’ll tell you.

One could do worse than be a Striped Maple.