2. Bitter cherry: Beginner's mind
In her wonderful book Birds Art Life, about a year spent learning how to bird in southern Ontario, Kyo Maclear describes her process of using a guidebook to identify birds in her yard. "I sat in my garden every day with my Peterson's Field Guide and a pair of binoculars trying to compare the living birds around me with the book birds on my lap." She finds what she thinks is a crossbill, but is then corrected by her birding companion, who tells her it's a house finch. Maclear then writes, "Any momentary feelings of stupidity and shame on my part were dispelled by the bird's charm."
In embarking on this 43 Trees project, I have a few resources to go on, but am mostly venturing wild guesses. Is that leaf serrated enough to count as a cherry? Do the ribs on that trunk run horizontally or vertically? Is the bark too ridged? I am using the BC Big Trees Champions list, of course, but this site lacks a lot of descriptive details and has fewer photos. Today in my search for a bitter cherry in North Vancouver, I pulled out my copy of David Tracey's Vancouver Tree Book, a fully illustrated guide to over 100 trees (native and implant) common in the Lower Mainland.
After an early morning yoga class in North Van, I headed west of Highway 1 to Phibbs Exchange. I parked at the A&W on Main Street and set off to explore the wooded lots just west of the transit hub. There are two large lots of trees: a square lot abutting directly onto a backyard, and a long, narrow one that runs between the exchange and a path beside a residential area. The neighbourhood reminded me of where I grew up in Surrey: overgrown lots rimmed by paths and intersected by rough trails, next to houses from the 1960s and '70s plus recently cleared areas and new housing developments.
I braved (well, blithely ignored) a sign advising that herbicide had been sprayed in one of the wooded lots two weeks earlier and entered the smaller of the two lots. Stepping gingerly in the underbrush, I approached large trees, comparing them to the images in my tree book. None of them was a bitter cherry, though there are cherry trees in the lot.
Leaving that lot, I moved toward the longer lot. There I noticed that someone has been camping on a trail in the forest, so I opted to avoid that particular entry point and see what trees I could spot from the periphery. This tract of forest runs along the unceded territory of the Squamish nation.
I still hadn't spotted the giant and was about ready to pack it in, when I decided to circle the first lot from a new angle. And then I spotted it: an 18.9 m bitter cherry on the edge of the lot, right beside the curb. I had walked past it earlier. I compared the tree I saw with the photo on the Champions site. That photo was taken in 2000, so the area around the tree has changed a lot. Plus, that photo was taken during autumn or winter, when most of the canopy had fallen and the underbrush was less dense compared to the lush roadside forest of early June. I took the shell of the tree online and added eighteen years of green.
I moved into the lot to take a closer look at the trunk, 2.69 m in circumference, and covered in vines. This tree was nominated by Ralf Kelman in 2000, and co-verified by Kelman and Shaun Muc in the same year.
The leaves looked roughly the same as those in my Vancouver Tree Book. The bark looked similar, though more weathered, as I suppose can be expected of a tree this age. I compared the layout of the limbs between the tree in front of me and the tree on the site. Apart from two limbs on the left that are missing (presumably fallen or removed in the eighteen-year interval), the tree I saw is identical.
The point is that, even with resources, it's just so hard to know; or rather, as a novice, it's difficult to allow yourself to accept what is in front of you as the truth. The Buddhist concept of beginner's mind allows us to embrace curiosity and not-knowingness, ideally learning more in the process. Adopting a beginner's mind can be liberating: an empty mind can be filled with useful information, guides for ethical conduct, questions and koans for further exploration. But without a spirit of playful curiosity, that supposed freedom of not knowing can also be entirely frustrating and limiting to those, like myself, who look for concrete answers along the lines of "If it looks like a duck..."
The reluctant fact is that many of us, particularly city dwellers, don't know what we're looking at when it comes to trees. It's relatively easy to identify maples, cedars, and pines, but there are so many variations within these groups. And "real life" examples, subjected to weather, drought, development, and herbicide, will never match those in the guidebooks.
I have approached most of my life through books. I studied literature in grad school, and I have been a book editor for more than a decade. When attempting a new activity, for example bike touring or bouldering, I read about it first, and then consult guidebooks for prompts and tips throughout my hands-on education. It's not enough for me to learn through action; I need words to coax, guide, and reassure me.
Relying on others' lived experience—knowledge that cannot always be gleaned from the Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook—will be invaluable as I expand my own limited understanding of these giants. From the sign of the Squamish nation at the end of the long wooded lot, I learned a new word: chenchenstway (helping one another). I hope I will embrace this spirit of chenchenstway as I come to ask for help in future tree visits, particularly those in restricted or remote areas. Eventually, I will come to trust my own lived experience when it comes to understanding and identifying these giants. In the meantime, I am peering at leaves and bark with immense curiosity.
I was not hit by my own ignorance today as much as my delight in the pursuit, and my surprise in my easy acceptance of possibly trying again should I not find the bitter cherry. Like Maclear feeling charmed by a bird without necessarily needing to know its name, I feel buoyed by these visits to wooded areas. I have a reputation for being an "absentminded professor" type, but I feel most myself when wandering with a sense of both purpose and wild abandon, muttering vaguely, clutching a notebook. Purely put (though puerile), undertaking this project is not pissing into the wind, even if I don't ultimately find all 43 trees.
Between the noise of the highway, the herbicide, the encampment, and a roaming dog, I admit I am looking forward to tree visits that will bring me further afield, away from suburban areas. When tracking giants, it's advisable to wear closed shoes, socks, and pants. Needless to say, in an effort to limit my cat Charlie's exposure to herbicide, I took off my pants when I got home, and I have yet to put another pair back on. Living alone has its perks.
Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata [Dougl.] Walp.), near Phibbs Exchange, North Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territories (Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh)