“Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

November 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Tree LadyI’m completely obsessed with trees right now. I know what you’re thinking: this is not news. And, you’re right, I’ve written about my love for trees (and stories featuring trees) here, here, here and here. But I’m really, really obsessed with trees right now—and that’s because I have recently been tree shopping. When my kids were baptized last spring, their grandmother offered to buy each of them a tree to grow up alongside. So, earlier this fall, the kids and I did what we do best: we walked, we scooted, and we drove around our neighborhood looking at trees. How had we missed so many of these beauties before? “How about we get one of each?” my son ventured.

Eventually, we narrowed down our choices, but then there was the question of how and where to buy the trees. I initially thought, I’ll look for a deal on the Internet. But then my gardening friend reproached me: you need to see a tree before you buy it, need to study its form, need to find one that speaks to you. This is why, one crystal clear November morning, I found myself standing in a wholesale nursery an hour away in Maryland, surrounded by 600 different varieties of trees. I was walking up and down rows of trees, examining curves of trunks and canopy shapes, paying way too many people to follow me around offering their opinions, and starting to feel like I was going to have a hard time explaining to my husband how this simple decision to buy two trees had gotten totally out of hand. Did I mention how much fun I was having?

In the end, I decided on a tree for each child. Emily, my zealously affectionate child got a stewartia pseudocamellia, a slender but strong tree, with two trunks opening up to the sky in a V, as if to kiss the clouds. For JP, I chose a katsura pendula, a weeping tree whose trunk curves back and forth before sprouting profuse branches jutting every which way (not unlike the way his hair looks upon waking). As this tree matures, its branches will extend to the ground and offer JP a mini retreat from the world, a place for thinking Big Thoughts (at least, this is how I envision it).

The day that the trees were delivered and planted was like Christmas morning. “Our trees are coming! Our trees are coming!” the kids squealed, racing around the house and stopping only to press noses against the front windows. When the sound of a truck lumbering down the street reached them, they tore open the door and ran to the curb. “Which one is mine? Which one is mine?” they chanted—and then watched, wide eyed, as five grown men lifted and rolled the trees down onto our lawn. When the kids got home from school later that afternoon, the trees were secure in their new homes. “Nice to meet you,” my daughter said, as she ran her small hand across the variegated peeling bark. JP ran circles around his tree for 20 minutes.

So what does this have to do with books? Well, it just so happens that there is an extraordinary new picture book about the true story of Kate Sessions, the scientist who transformed the city of San Diego in the late 1800s by planting trees and flowering tropical plants in a dry, barren landscape, where previously no one believed that greenery could flourish. Author H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrator Jill McElmurry’s The Tree Lady (Ages 5-10) is like a real life Miss Rumphius. It’s a story of passion and vision, of guts and hard work, beginning with Kate’s childhood love of getting her hands dirty; to her distinction as the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree; to the painstaking research she did as an adult to source and grow plants from all around the world that would thrive in Southern California’s desert climate. Kate is the very definition of a Big Dreamer. She wasn’t content to have a couple of trees in her backyard; she created an entire nursery, raising trees to sell to homeowners in the area and later enlisting volunteers to plant thousands of them in Balboa Park for the Panama-California Exposition, an historic event which officially put San Diego on the map.

I recently read an essay, written by children’s author T.A. Barron, which argued that instilling in our children a love for nature is the surest way to motivate them to care for our depleting natural resources. Only out of this love, Barron argues, can learning commence: “Before kids can be expected to understand the facts about our planet, they need to feel an enduring bond with the marvelous places and trees and birds and animals who share that planet with us. We are emotional beings – so we can’t ask kids to protect and steward something they don’t truly love.” Getting kids out into nature is the best way to nurture their love; but reading stories about women and men who dared in the name of Mother Nature is another valuable way to plant seeds of hope in the next generation. Perhaps my children will someday dream beyond their own backyard. In the meantime, let’s hope we can keep our new trees alive.

I love this illustration of Kate in the front row, hand raised, the only girl in a sea of budding scientists.

I love this illustration of Kate in the front row, hand raised, the only girl in a sea of budding scientists.

Other Favorite Inspiring True Stories of Women Scientists:
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-10)
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World, by Laurie Lawlor (Ages 5-10)
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Ages 4-8)
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-10)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh & Raul Colon (Ages 5-10)
Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning by Laurence Anholt & Sheila Moxley (Ages 5-10)
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle & Julie Paschkis (Ages 6-12)

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