The New York Times Book Review
Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Treesby Nancy Ross Hugo
Have you ever looked at a tree? That may sound like a silly question, but there is so much more to notice about a tree than first meets the eye. Seeing Trees celebrates seldom seen but easily observable tree traits and invites you to watch trees with the same care and sensitivity that birdwatchers watch birds. Many people, for example, are surprised to learn/i>
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Have you ever looked at a tree? That may sound like a silly question, but there is so much more to notice about a tree than first meets the eye. Seeing Trees celebrates seldom seen but easily observable tree traits and invites you to watch trees with the same care and sensitivity that birdwatchers watch birds. Many people, for example, are surprised to learn that oaks and maples have flowers, much less flowers that are astonishingly beautiful when viewed up close.
Focusing on widely grown trees, this captivating book describes the rewards of careful and regular tree viewing, outlines strategies for improving your observations, and describes some of the most visually interesting tree structures, including leaves, flowers, buds, leaf scars, twigs, and bark. In-depth profiles of ten familiar species—including such beloved trees as white oak, southern magnolia, white pine, and tulip poplar—show you how to recognize and understand many of their most compelling (but usually overlooked) physical features.
The New York Times Book Review
“A splendid book.”
“Hugo writes with real passion about trees…. Beautifully produced and fascinating to read.”
“A botanical masterpiece.”
“Filled with surprises.”
“Their call to seeing what nature offers is magical and the photographs are works of art.”
"This seems like the sort of book which sprinkles a bit of fairy dust on something we see everyday, so that just taking a walk or stepping outside feels magical and fresh."
“If you love books and nature, this is one to own for reference and to ponder during the long winter months.”
“A captivating book.”
“A gorgeous book, a great reference and a beautiful addition to the nature lover’s bookshelf.”
“Will take your breath away.”
“My favorite new book this season is Seeing Trees…This book is made for us nearsighted gardeners, who long ago learned the thrill of peering at plants.”
“You can't help but be bowled over by the beauty at play in the science.”
“The authors have brought the level of observation to new heights.”
“Through [Llewellyn’s] lens we take flight with a red maple’s charming helicopterlike seed pods and can almost feel the smooth, muscular, steel-gray bark of an ironwood.”
“A whole new world of tree mystery has opened up.”
“If you love trees, or if you love good photography, you will love this book.”
“A new exciting book.”
“Gorgeous images & observations.”
“You will begin to appreciate trees in a whole new way.”
“This fascinating celebration of trees will delight gardeners, botanists, students of natural history, and nature photographers.”
“The book to change us all into unabashed tree worshippers.”
"The only way I can describe my reaction to receiving Seeing Trees was like a child being taken into a sweet shop.”
“A beautiful and exciting book.”
“Llewellyn’s extraordinarily crisp photographs alone force the reader to consider trees differently, if only because there are so few illustrations of entire trees, trunk, crown and all.”
A beautifully produced and photographed new book. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about this fascinating group of plants both in the wild or in your backyard.
Filled with arresting close-ups.
You’ll be dazzled.
Seeing Trees opens our eyes to a tree's shy magnificence and invites us to deepen our relationship with these earthly treasures.
Seeing Trees opens our eyes to a tree’s shy magnificence and invites us to deepen our relationship with these earthly treasures.
“Vivid, fascinating botanical biographies.”
"The resulting images are full of detail.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge
Read an Excerpt
Introduction “The acorns are plumping out.” It was late August when my husband, John, made that casual observation, but there was nothing casual about my response to it. I was thrilled, not so much because the acorns were “plumping out,” growing fatter and fatter under their caps, but because it meant John had caught the tree-watching bug, which is contagious. I guess you can’t spend time with someone who pulls the ladder out to inspect tree flowers or festoons them with yarn bows to mark developing fruit without catching some enthusiasm for the subject. In truth, John has always been an enthusiastic tree-watcher, but his sensibilities have grown with mine in the recent years we’ve spent watching trees up close. This kind of tree-watching is different from the kind that takes in trees at a glance, possibly names them, then assigns them to the category of thing to watch, like when they’re leafing out in spring or when they’re changing color in fall. There is always something to watch when you are paying attention to the intimate details that define tree species and the processes that characterize their life cycles. Like the Chinese, who divide the solar calendar into twenty-four rather than four seasons (among them, fortnights called “excited insects,” “grains fill,” “cold dew,” and “frost descends”), a practiced tree-watcher knows there are dozens of seasons and that one of them could be called “acorns plumping out.” The rewards of observing intimate tree details such as maturing acorns, unfurling beech leaves, and emerging walnut flowers inspired photographer Robert Llewellyn and me to create this book. In a previous project, Bob and I traveled over 20,000 miles and spent four years describing and illustrating the finest trees in our state, Virginia. We focused primarily on trees and their beauty in the landscape. Bob, who came to photography via engineering and has a keen interest in the way things work, began looking more carefully at the constituent parts of the trees we were visiting, and he was soon collecting twigs, flowers, fruits, and buds to examine and photograph in his studio. He argues that “picking up a camera makes you really see things,” and soon he was discovering minute phenomena that further piqued his interest in the way trees work and live. To capture them, he mastered a new form of photography. Using software developed for work with microscopes Bob creates incredibly sharp images by stitching together eight to forty-five images of each subject, each shot at a different focal point. And, inspired by botanical drawings, he photographs his subjects against a white background, which helps to isolate them and emphasize their detail. Like a botanical painter, Bob wanted his photographs to “enlighten people about what’s going on” in the natural world, but he also wanted to be enlightened himself. As we got into our work, Bob was soon full of questions about the functions of bud scales, fine leaf hairs, and other tree minutiae. He was learning which trees had separate male and female flowers, which had both, and which had “perfect” flowers (or flowers with both male and female parts). He was a question machine, and he looked to me for answers, but I am not a botanist. I am a tree lover from way back, and have been writing and teaching about trees for four decades (as a garden columnist, freelance journalist, and education manager at a botanical garden), but I felt out of my element trying to describe details of tree physiology. Interestingly, though, when I approached more knowledgeable friends, including botanists, with some of my questions, I realized many of them had never noticed the phenomena Bob and I were observing, even though these phenomena are observable on common trees. And whenever I mentioned to colleagues the thrill of seeing something like the pollination droplet on a ginkgo ovule, they were as intrigued as I was. So for Seeing Trees, I decided my job was to be the bridge between botanists and ordinary tree lovers who were put off by botanical nomenclature but interested—extremely interested—in seeing more and learning more about trees. For this book, Bob and I decided to focus on the exceptional traits of ordinary trees. We did little traveling (unless you count walks across the lawn or rendezvous to meet each other), but we were no less impressed with what we saw. In fact, limiting and coordinating our visual fields was a bigger problem than finding worthy subjects to photograph and describe. “I can’t keep up with what’s going on in the backyard!” Bob admitted one day when we were talking about the surprising challenges of watching intently what’s happening right under our noses. We exchanged many an urgent email (“The sassafras is blooming now!”), alerting each other to phenomena worthy of attention, but we soon learned how widely blooming times, not to mention leaf emergence and leaf fall, varied between our Virginia homes. Spring, it is said, advances up the United States at the average rate of about 15 miles a day, and ascends mountainsides at the rate of about 100 feet a day, so we got used to waiting—sometimes as long as two weeks—to observe the same phenomena. Our goal in creating the book was to get people outdoors searching for tree phenomena like the ones we observed, because what is startling in Bob’s photographs is infinitely more inspiring outdoors, where it can be appreciated in context and with all the senses. And it is in the process of discovering these phenomena in nature that the real joy of tree-watching resides. In the chapters that follow, Bob and I illustrate and describe much of what we saw in two years of intense tree viewing. The categories of tree phenomena we attended to and the techniques we used could be applied to tree-watching anywhere in the world. In chapter 1, I describe some of the challenges of tree viewing, the importance of naming trees (or not), and some viewing strategies—activities and ways of watching that will help you see more. In chapter 2, I discuss in detail various tree traits, including leaves, flowers, cones, fruit, buds, leaf scars, bark, and twig structure, that, as they become more familiar, can inform your tree observations and help you know what to look for. In chapter 3, I describe my own process of discovery as I watched ten tree species carefully over time and witnessed, up close, their seasonal changes and species-specific behaviors. The ten trees we chose to profile in depth are American beech, American sycamore, black walnut, eastern red cedar, ginkgo, red maple, southern magnolia, tulip poplar, white oak, and white pine. Choosing which ten tree species to profile was not an easy process. Like all tree lovers, Bob and I had our favorite trees and lobbied each other to include them. We had to include only trees that Bob and I could both watch carefully in our own yards or neighborhoods, which limited us to trees that grow in central Virginia. That was hardly a meager sample of trees, however, since our part of the world is particularly rich in tree species. Criteria we used for selection included the range of the tree (we wanted trees with geographic ranges as broad as possible), the prevalence of the tree (we opted for common over uncommon trees), and the degree to which the tree illustrated, in a compelling way, the features like buds, bark, flowers, and resting buds we had described in earlier chapters. Charisma also counted. Because its range is limited to the southeastern United States, southern magnolia would never have made our ten species cut unless it had not also been one of the most charismatic trees on the planet. “Woman has no seductions for the man who cannot keep his eyes off his magnolias,” a wag once observed, and Bob is among the men smitten by the southern magnolia. The passion that one or both of us felt for a tree species also counted in our deliberations, since it would be hard to write about, or spend time photographing, a tree one had no affection for (although in the case of trees, familiarity tends to breed affection, and any tree I examine closely over time seems to become a favorite). In addition to the ten featured tree species, you will find a good sampling of additional trees with broad ranges discussed and illustrated throughout the rest of the book. Among them are flowering dogwood, horsechestnut, catalpa, Osage-orange, redbud, persimmon, and sweetgum. These trees richly reward intimate viewing, so if you have one of them nearby, give it a closer look. Sweetgum, in particular, would make a rapid leap from being perceived as a trash tree to being considered a natural wonder if its buds, flowers, and fruit were more often observed up close and its colorful leaves better appreciated for their myriad colors. In Seeing Trees, we want to convey that tree viewing can be as exciting as bird-watching (perhaps even more exciting, if trees are your favorite wild beings) and that through intimate viewing, one’s sense of trees as living, breathing organisms, as opposed to inanimate objects, will be enhanced. Look carefully, for example, at the hair, veins, pores, and other wildly vivifying tree characteristics captured in the photographs in this book, and you’ll never see a tree in the same way again. To my mind, the biggest reward of intimate tree-watching is learning to appreciate the vitality of trees. Because trees are big and essentially stationary, there is a tendency to view them almost like monuments—impressive but inanimate. We value trees for their slow, inexorable growth, seeing them as symbols of fortitude and patience, but with slow, incremental growth being almost impossible to observe, the living essence of trees is a bit hard to appreciate. Not so when you are observing actively growing buds, flowers, fruits, and other tree traits that take less time than a trunk to develop. “This is where the action is!” I’ve wanted to shout more than once when some inarguably animate tree phenomenon has grabbed my attention. And Bob is famous for using the horror-movie-with-aliens phrase “It’s alive!” when encountering some startling evidence of tree vitality like gracefully unfurling leaves, protective hairs, working veins, or sticky exudations. Other rewards of intimate tree viewing include the insight such observations provide to the way trees work (wherever possible, I describe the functions of all the little what-nots Bob has illustrated) and the joy of observing traits trees have taken millions of years to develop. Almost every paean to trees includes some description of what trees do for human beings (wonderful things, important things), but even if trees performed no ecological services, I would want to observe them regularly and intimately just to experience the brilliance of their engineering. Every time I think about, much less witness, the way a pleated beech leaf unfolds from its bud, the way a catalpa flower directs pollinators to its nectar, or the way a sycamore petiole protects the leaf bud below, I am astounded by the genius of the thing and want to observe more. Trees identifiable as trees have been evolving for 397 million years (humans identifiable as humans for only 3 million), and there is no small wisdom in the adaptations they have made to survive in a changing environment. Like most writers and photographers who value what they describe and illustrate, Bob and I hope this book will help make the world safer for trees. In my most romantic imaginings, I sometimes think that if I could just draw enough people’s attention to the beauty of red maple blossoms, to the extraordinary engineering of gumballs, and to the intricacy of phenomena such as pinecones, all would be well in the tree world. That is a romantic notion. But sometimes romance can accomplish what rhetoric cannot. As the British naturalist Peter Scott once observed (to author Roger Deakin), “The most effective way to save the threatened and decimated natural world is to cause people to fall in love with it again, with its beauty and its reality.”
Meet the Author
Nancy Ross Hugo has been writing, lecturing, and teaching about trees, native plants, and floral design for over thirty years. Her writing has appeared in Horticulture, Fine Gardening, American Forests, Country Journal, Virginia Living, and Country Life. For eight years, her weekly columns on gardening and natural history (“Earth Works”) appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and her monthly “Habitat” column on gardening for wildlife appeared in Virginia Wildlife for ten. She has been recognized for excellence in magazine and newspaper feature writing by the Garden Writers Association and by the Virginia Urban Forest Council. As education manager of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, she supervised adult and children’s education. She and her husband John live in Howardsville, Virginia where they manage the outdoor education center Flower Camp. She was cited for Outstanding Achievement in Field of Horticulture by Garden Club of Virginia in 1988 and received the Dugdale Award for Conservation in 2001.
Robert Llewellyn has been photographing plants and landscapes for almost forty years. His photographs have been featured in major art exhibits, and more than thirty books featuring his photography are in print. His 2007 book, Empires of the Forest: Jamestown and the Beginning of America, won five national awards in nonfiction and photography, and The Capital was an official diplomatic gift of the White House and State Department.
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