Thursday

December 14th, 2017

Insight

'I'm trying to name the trees': Some quiet thoughts in a loud world

Mary Schmich

By Mary Schmich

Published December 31, 2014

It was drizzling, and the sky was that uniquely bleak color that on a paint chip might be called "Chicago gray," when I ran into a friend.

We were both out for a solitary walk.

"What are you up to?" I asked.

She tilted her umbrella and glanced skyward.

"I'm trying to name the trees," she said.

The trees along the sidewalk, next to a park, were bare, their bark dark with rain. I'd passed these trees thousands of times without bothering to wonder until this moment what they were called, and I certainly didn't know.

My friend went on about how she has made a project out of trying to learn the names of trees, though she conceded she hadn't made great progress.

The one tree she can confidently name, she said, is a maple. She likes to draw, and she draws maples in every season. She has absorbed all the details of how maple limbs look when the leaves have vanished and how the buds are shaped when the leaves are ready to return.

"What are these trees?" I asked.

She noticed that the drizzle had stopped, and she closed her umbrella.

She grimaced. She wasn't sure. But we didn't need to be standing here talking about the names of trees, she said, apologetically, did we?

I assured her that we did.

It was a work day. Another day when the world was brimming with news of the terrible things people do to each other. Another day in the countdown of the busy holidays.

What better day to stand in the open air and calmly discuss trees?

She mentioned that the night before she'd been reading about the newish video-sharing service called Vine. This sounded like a digression, but I soon realized it wasn't.

The popular Vine app lets users make six-second videos. Stuff like a guy blowing smoke rings after sucking on a hookah. Adorable pet tricks. Toilet paper pranks.

By Vine standards, the average YouTube video is as plodding and passe as the nightly network news.

After a brief discourse on Vine, she worked her way back to trees.

Would people addicted to six-second videos, she wondered, ever have the patience to notice the trees, to learn their names?

As someone who's not yet addicted to six-second videos but who nevertheless can't name most trees, I can't be too hard on Vine addicts or on people who can't name trees, but I know what she meant.

The older I get, the more I realize how many details of the natural world I've ignored in my rush to get from here to there, and how thrilling the details are when I do see them.

What are the names of the trees?

Is it possible to notice the instant that the drizzle stops?

What exactly is the color of the sky?

Who has time for such questions in the rush of daily life?

For many people, life speeds up even more during the holidays. So much to do. The shopping, the wrapping, the getting, the spending, the partying, the parking. All of that on top of the ordinary to'ing and fro'ing and staying alive.

My friend had a holiday party to get to, and after a couple more minutes on the topic of trees, we agreed it was time to move along.

Before we did, she looked at the sky, the kind of December sky that never seems to wake up.

She said she loved this time of year because the days got darker and darker, moving toward the solstice, which meant we'd soon be moving back into the light.

Then she said, again, that there must be more important things to talk about.

No, I assured her, again. There really weren't.

Comment by clicking here.

Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Columnists

Toons

Lifestyles