There’s a phrase that has always given me pause. If you were to say, “he can’t see the forest for the trees”, you’re commenting on someone’s inability to identify the bigger picture because they’re too focused on the individual, minute details of a problem. As a Park Ranger, and overall lover of dendrology, I take direct offense to this phrase because it makes me feel guilty for my love for trees and the methods of identifying these magnificent plants throughout the various seasons of the year. But I wasn’t always so immersed in, and familiar with, the forest in my life.
When I first started working at William B. Umstead State Park as a Seasonal Park Attendant some 11 years ago, I didn’t know all that much about trees or how to tell them apart. Sure, I took a few classes in college that had to do with plant biology, but none of it really stuck. When I first started working here, I wanted to properly learn about tree identification but was intimidated by the sheer magnitude of species in the forest and was about to throw up my hands and surrender. However, a since retired Park Ranger used another idiom to help me in my studies. He asked me “How do you eat an elephant?” to which I answered, “One bite at a time.”
From that point on, I picked one tree species a week and immersed myself in it as I drove around the park working. Stopping to run my fingers along the deep ridges of a Loblolly Pine or peel a flake of the light-gray fringe protruding from the trunk of a wise White Oak. I would pick a leaf off a Red Maple and hold it next to a specimen from a Southern Sugar Maple and use the skills I gathered from reading Highlights magazine as a kid to identify as many differences as I could find between the two similar yet different varieties.
In late March I would wait for the magenta-pink flowers of a Redbud tree to bloom before standing on the toolbox of my truck and nibbling a small handful to taste the organic sweetness they provide. I’d look both ways to see if a diligently patrolling Ranger would notice me grabbing a few extra Redbud flowers, then bring them home to add some color and phytonutrients to my salad at dinner. In the dry heat of the summer, I would nibble the leaves of the Sourwood trees and let its oxalic acid stimulate my salivary glands while hiking on a dusty trail. My perpetually parched mouth grateful for any drop of liquids I could come by while I was out digging ditches on the multi-use trail in the heat of the day.
Then as fall began, I would watch the way the Painted Buckeye lost its leaves long before any of the other trees along South Turkey Creek Multi-use Trail. And when the buttery tasting Mockernut Hickory nuts would fall and litter the forest floor beneath the mighty giants, I knew winter was well on its way.
After my nearly two years of seasonal work at the park, I had studied dozens of tree species and worked my way up from novice to (self-proclaimed) intermediate just in time to be offered a job as a Ranger. I’m not quite sure when I’ll qualify as an expert, but I hope it happens before I hang up my badge and my Ranger hat in the Visitor Center in some 20-odd years. In the meantime, I’ll continue to get out in the forest as much as possible to study the unique shade of persimmon bark, the fine serrations of dark green cherry leaves, and the floral scent of the tulip-tree flowers and hone my skills out here in the forest of William B. Umstead State Park.
Hopefully I’ll see you out there doing the same.
- Ranger Nick Dioguardi
Photographer: Ernie Sears
The Umstead Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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