I’ve found a park that I really love here in the DC area: Teddy Roosevelt Island. The whole island is a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt; there’s a manmade memorial with a big statue and so on in the middle of the island, but most of it is a beautiful nature preserve. The loop trail that runs all the way around the perimeter is just over a mile long and makes a very nice walk. There’s a wide variety of habitats present, ranging from forest to swamp, and it’s one of the few places I’ve found around here where the traffic noise is almost entirely muted. (The planes going over from National are another matter, but at least they’re only intermittent.)
Being a Pagan, and a self-described tree-hugger, I was sad to realize how little I knew about recognizing different varieties of trees. Thankfully, there are many websites with tree-recognition guides and descriptions of the key pieces of evidence to observe when trying to identify a tree’s species. I also got a handy little book called Tree Finder at the National Arboretum (another little-known resource for nature-lovers in this urban setting). Tree Finder and most of the websites ask the reader to use a leaf to identify the tree, going through a series of questions that separate out different categories (evergreen or deciduous? simple or compound? alternate or opposite arrangement?) to narrow down the possibilities. There’s a whole vocabulary for describing leaves and other features of trees; it can get very detailed, but even a basic understanding makes a big difference to how I perceive trees and their leaves.
Taking a walk on TR Island after even just a superficial lesson in leaf study was an entirely different world. With the new vocabulary I had available, I could take in at a glance a whole range of information about a tree. Before, I would have seen a tree in a more holistic fashion, a very passive observance of “oh, it’s pretty; it’s green, and has leaves…” Now, I can recognize features that help me understand more about the tree than just what I’m seeing at the moment; most oaks have distinctive leaves, and now I see them and realize this tree will have acorns in the fall. Individual trees jump out at me more quickly, and seem to have more personality with my increased awareness. I don’t have to trace the branches back to the trunk to tell where a sycamore and an ash tree are intertwined, or to know that the brilliant red ivy is a parasitical growth on the tree whose leaves have only started to go orange, giving it the look of a varicolored flame. It’s as if I can start to make out letters in a language that was previously just squiggles.
This shift is a welcome one, because I want to be able to understand the forest better, but it’s also a startling demonstration of how gaining one kind of perception can mean losing another. Usually, these kinds of changes take place over a long time, so that by the time we’ve learned the new way of seeing, we can hardly remember what it was like before. Vocabulary helps us describe things in part by defining what’s important to pay attention to. Whether or not this leaf has a spider on it isn’t important when I’m focusing on whether the edge is serrated or smooth; but in learning what to pay attention to, I learn to ignore other things as well. It’s a shift from holistic perception to focused, detailed perception. Sometimes, though, it’s important to be “distracted” by the spider, or the startling tapestry that the forest makes as each tree’s leaves change separately depending on a multitude of factors.
Starhawk talks about “twilight consciousness” in The Spiral Dance, encouraging those who would worship the Goddess to rely not only on the kind of linear, detail-focused, knowledge-heavy awareness, but also on the awareness that sits back more passively and takes in the larger picture, that seeks patterns and wholeness as well. Learning how to “read” leaves in more detail makes me more aware of the difference between the twilight consciousness of simply being in the forest, as opposed to the spotlight consciousness of identifying species. I think as Pagans that we need to cultivate both. We need to know which kind of consciousness we’re using, which kind is appropriate for a specific time or place or goal, and we want to be able to shift back and forth between them, experiencing both the wholeness and holiness of our surroundings and an intimate and detailed knowledge of them.