Margot Anne Kelley
A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees
(An excerpt from the Introduction to the recently published book of the same name)
In 1893, Josiah Wood Hupper built what is now our house on a one-acre plot near the bottom of the St. George peninsula, a broad granite swath bounded by the St. George river to the west and the open Atlantic Ocean to the east. Our acre is bounded neither by ocean nor river. Instead, to the front it abuts the state highway that runs the length of the peninsula, and to one side a private dirt road runs between our house and our nearest neighbor’s. The other side and back of our property adjoin the rest of the 40 acre lot from which our acre was extracted and given to Josiah as a gift by his sister.
By Maine standards, an acre isn’t very big. Still, the yard is rich with trees and bushes, brambles and ferns. Over the ten years we’ve lived here, our outdoor emendations have been modest and nearly always utilitarian: we added extensive vegetable and herb gardens, some bushes to hide the back-up generator and propane tanks, three semi-dwarf apple trees. Mostly, we take care of the flora of our forerunners—pruning, lopping, trimming, clipping, and thinning are all part of our legacy.
That we have so much to care for is a testament to both place and predecessors. To be sure, these trees are not a wood primeval; this land has been lived on and worked for more than two centuries. And that work would have been hard: in many places on the peninsula, including some in our yard, the soil is no more than a shallow layer over granite ledge. And here, as elsewhere in New England, the landscape is crisscrossed with low stone walls that are at least as much a place to put unearthed stones as they are boundary lines. I’m sure the knee-high walls that edge our yard are just such. In these stone walls and trees and other landscape features, the history of this peninsula is written as surely as on paper.
It was this realization that got me wondering about the trees in our yard, this sense that they are a thread connecting the people who’ve lived here, a living record of the history of this place. Since I am far from expert in tree knowledge, I turned to field guides to learn about them. And those helped, somewhat. But the images in most field guides are idealized; and Maine doesn’t offer an ideal climate in some ways. Trees here are often frailer than they would be in more southerly parts of their growing range, leafing later in the spring than they are “supposed to” or growing less quickly. And real trees, like real people, don’t always look like models. Gradually, I got better at identifying and admiring the trees in their own right, rather than just as a symbol of human preferences and connections. But I remain an amateur. So, a few years ago I asked an arborist to determine the ages of the trees we’d inherited. I imagined that learning who had chosen each tree would give me greater insight into this place I had grown to love and to think of as home.
I have learned some about these people. I have also, however, realized how naïve that early notion was: contrary to what I’d imagined at the outset, we people have played a pretty limited role in planting the trees on this piece of property. Instead, animals and birds and (of course) the trees themselves have taken point on that task. Though the trees have offered only oblique insights about our human forebears, they’ve readily taught me what every backyard naturalist comes to know—that the living world is not composed of easily separated parts, that the birds and bugs and bacteria, the plants and people, are intertwined with the trees and with one another, all of us connected in unexpected ways. Occasionally, I fleetingly glimpse the warp and woof of this place’s web, the rich system we’ve all contributed to creating.
And in such moments, this acre swells.
Excerpt from “About this Field Guide” in A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees by Margot Anne Kelley (Port Clyde, ME: Fiddlehead Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Margot Anne Kelley. Reprinted with permission from Fiddlehead Press.
Margot Anne Kelley is an artist and educator. Equally engaged by words and images, she has been a professor for nearly twenty-five years, teaching literature, writing, photography, and aesthetics. She is the author of Local Treasures: Geocaching across America and The Thing about the Wind. She lives in mid-coast Maine, where she is Executive Director of the K2 Family Foundation and is associated with several other nonprofits focused on finding creative approaches to living more sustainably. In her free time, she grows food.