At my first college, I took an ornithology course. There were three other people in my class – my friend Brandy, a basketball player whose rare presence indicated a failing attempt to fulfill some kind of science requirement, and the registrar’s mother.
This school didn’t function off of either semesters or quarters, but instead had a module system in which you took one class at a time, intensively, for about a month and then switched it up to new class. That meant all morning 5 days a week and, if it was a science class, a big chunk of the afternoon, as well.
The many pros and cons of this system can be debated at a future time, but one clear pro was that we were able to take tons of field trips to watch birds, set up mist nets, visit the Pittsburgh Aviary, and camp all around the state because there were no schedule conflicts for anyone to worry about.
This was how I discovered the tulip poplar.
Yes, I’m sure I was supposed to discover birds, not trees. In fairness, I did. I loved that class and I still pay attention to birds, much to my husband’s confusion. He’s learned to not be surprised at my sudden exclamations: Common Grackle! Mountain Bluebird! and just takes it all in stride. Several field guides have a prominent position in my kitchen, from which I can see my bird feeder. There are plans for binoculars and more feeders.
Still, though – the tulip poplar.
Tall and slender, with big floppy leaves that catch the light in just the right way and leave the forest floor glittering like Lothlorien in the fall, they are the one type of deciduous tree that I really miss in my evergreen mountain home. I miss hiking by them, reading under them, and I especially miss them when backpacking because, let’s face it, pine needles make awful toilet paper and those giant leaves are just the best.
Jokes aside, there is a romance to them. The ways they dapple the sunlight and tower above the undergrowth. The way they make the forest floor look, the shadows they cast, and the wildlife they do their part to harbor. They get pretty tall, so in my case, I think it’s that they make me feel small, in that positive way that only nature can manage.
The tulip poplar does its part in autumn, with it’s golden leaves. In Colorado, people are familiar with the gold of the aspens. They are lovely, but those giant poplar leaves combined with the reds and golds of other species make fall in the West Virginia and all around Appalachia and the eastern U.S. something special. It’s one of the few things that I prefer about my home region. Not enough to move back or anything, but if you are visiting that area in the fall, take a minute to look at the trees.
I’m no botanist and therefore can do little to espouse their merits or deride them for any ecological fault. The pleasure I take in them is purely aesthetic and, for all that, I don’t even have any photos of my own of my favorite deciduous tree, a problem I will have to remedy during my next summer visit to my home state.
If you do visit West Virginia, whether it be for the world class whitewater rafting (the best reason to visit, in my opinion) or for some other rationale, pay attention to the trees. If you happen to find yourself under a particularly pleasant, large-leafed variety, you may have found a tulip poplar. In which case, enjoy it for me.
PS: Here is an attempt at an actual ode by a non-poet who has never tried to write an ode before. I googled “How to Write an Ode” and the first instruction was “get emotional.” Oh, god… My Vulcan self rebels.
Anyway, here we go.
O’ tree of my youth,
that giant of the forest
The splendour of your leaves,
casts a light upon my heart
Never shall the memory fade,
of time spent under your boughs
Ouch. That’s enough of that for everyone. Any real poets out there?