I was in Kenya last year. I carried one book on the animals. One on the birds and one on the flora and fauna. I studied the greater kudu and the secretary bird and the wait-a-bit bush. I became a veritable scholar on the natural life of the dry, dusty Mara.. Answering my guide’s ecological quizzes with the lip slurping anticipation of a Jeopardy player.
Now, I am home. and, as I walk down my driveway with my husband and he assumes the role of game show host., quizzing me on the trees bordering and bobbing along my way, I can’t identify one. I am an SAT scholar on the botanicals of eastern Kenya, yet I can’t identify an iota of flora or fauna in my own backyard?
“Ok…easy one”…he draws me in and points right at an altogether familiar tree. “Maple. I respond “. I don’t know. But aren’t maples the big kahunas of the northeast? Weren’t my odds best betting on the syrup king?”
“Nope” he responds. “Cherry”. “You can tell by the bark. Zig zaggy lines. Sort of sits away from the tree. See?” He points.
Ok…how bout that one?
I look. I don’t want to make a quick assumption here.
“Elm” I say. I don’t know why. It didn’t have the same bark issues. I couldn’t remember any names of trees. I was nervous.
“Oak” he says. Frustrated now. How could you not know oak.? Look at the leaves. He was right. Like the flat outlines of big wooly gloves your grandmother might have made. But no telltale acorns to guide my way.
What about the acorns I ask? Where are the acorns?
Squirrels, he retorts.
I should have known the oak. I won a contest in 4th grade once by drawing the black oak with my mother’s black ink dipping pen. Tiny leaves done one by one. Painstakingly placed on angled limbs forming a canopy of dense botanical wonder.
We were almost home now. I offered the last tree identity as a way of pre-empting his obvious question. The last tree on the right. Familiar now. With its vertical rivulets of bark. Adding dimension to it’s tree base.
“Cherry”. I almost shouted before he could get in his question. “Cherry”.
“Shaggy-bark hickory.” He said.
“I wouldn’t have asked you cherry again. Too hard”.
“Ohhhh…I responded. Too amazed by my lack of knowledge of North American trees to muster any more. Ohhhh.
i could name and describe 12 trees from Kenya. And tell you whether they were from the plains or desert or mountains. Blue breasted roller birds and esoteric animals by using both their real and lion king names.
But my driveway at home? The trees I had passed all my life? They were all maples to me.