Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Country Life

I have just returned from several weeks in the Canadian maritimes, where my wife and I have an old farmhouse.  The area is rural and serene, and makes our woodlands home in Rhode Island seem suburban.

But note these trees.

Pin Cherry Tree
They are not just any trees.  What these trees share is a lack of boundaries; they grow like weeds, crowding out spruce and maple in our woods.  Why?  Because they never sink deep roots into the community.  Their foundations are shallow and so are they, traveling light and spreading every which way.

The Pin Cherry, as suggested by its botanical name Prunus Pensylvanica, came from Pennsylvania years ago, most likely in the dead of night.  It is still found in Pennsylvania where, evidently not welcome, it has changed its name to Fire Cherry.  Nor does its identity-fudging end there.  Attentive readers may notice the absence of an "n" in what reasonably might be Prunus Pennsylvanica.  I've no answer for this, it's that sort of slipshod behavior so typical of this sloppily invasive tree.  (See Prunus Pennsylvania.)

Staghorn Sumac
Then there is its boisterous friend, the Sumac tree or, as regards our woods, the Staghorn Sumac.  More shrub than tree, it nonetheless leaves a wide, uncaring footprint.  Even so, you will find its promoters.  They will speak of its pretty flowers and a lemonade-like drink made from its fruit, also of its uses in jams, spices, and as a dye and dye fixative; plus, finally, the fact that maybe you can smoke it. Wikipedia, however, wisely cautions as to its beverage-uses since it can be confused with Poison Sumac.  (See Staghorn Sumac.)

Poison Sumac Tree
And now a helpful digression, and not just for the etymologists on board.  There is the word “Sumac" itself, which comes from summaq (Arabic: red).  Then there is the botanical name for Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, which breaks down into toxikon (Greek: poison in which arrows were dipped) + dendron (Greek: tree) + vernix (Latin: odorous resin, from which our word varnish derives).  So there you have it: poisonous arrows, stinky oily stuff ... Staghorn's cousin Toxidendron is an unctious, smooth-talking, inherently ill-intentioned tree.

And Staghorn itself?  Well, not all Sumacs are alike I suppose, still these shady family traits seem suggestive.  (See Poison Sumac.)

Pin Cherry Fruit
More digressively, let us revisit the Pin Cherry.  Its botanical name begins with its genus, Prunus (Latin borrowed from Greek: plum tree).  Now the connection between plum and Pin Cherry trees takes some deciphering.  I believe the Ancients lumped certain of these fruit-bearing trees together –– those with a certain type of fruit: small, fleshy, a single seam, a pit (such as plum, cherry, peach, apricot). Maybe they were plum-like, or close enough for inclusion in genus Prunus.  It is also possible I am entirely mistaken. 

Now during my stay in Canada I began compulsively pruning cherry and sumac from parts of our woods. Using inadequate (non-power) tools but great verve, I opened up three clearings, liberating spruce and maple saplings.  Part of this industry was compensatory for the lack of Wi-Fi at our house: instead of losing myself in the computer, I got lost in the woods.  I was so pleased with my labors that I posted a sign Kit's Assart in the largest clearing.  An assart (\as-sart\) is a good term for such a cleared area, and I credit my friend Nicola for bringing it to my attention.

Finally, it was pleasurable just being in the woods, in ways hard to explain.  I will let this four-song playlist speak for me.

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