Friday, October 28, 2011

Since You Asked...Nancy Hugo About "Seeing Trees"

I've loved a lot of trees in my lifetime. Truth be told, I've even hugged a few...and not just metaphorically. But it took nature writer and lecturer Nancy Hugo and photographer Robert Llewellyn, to teach me how to really see the trees that are such an important part of the scenery of our lives.

Courtesy Nancy Hugo/Robert Llewellyn
With their book, Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees [Timber Press, 2011], Nancy and Bob have given the world something very special, indeed.

Rather than dealing with the gorgeous, perfect specimens shown in most books about trees, the 245 pages of this volume are devoted to the ordinary. Once you've soaked up the contents of Seeing Trees (I found it to be a real page-turning), you can walk right out into your own backyard and see your perhaps-imperfect trees with a depth of appreciation that you might not have thought possible.

And the photos...I am not exaggerating when I say they will take your breath away. (You can find out how Bob Llewellyn produced these amazing pictures by viewing the video on the book's Amazon site. Believe me, it's well worth a couple of minutes of your time.)

So I'm delighted to have an opportunity to chat with Nancy Hugo about Seeing Trees.

Photo by Robert Llewellyn
Q. Nancy, when did your fascination with trees begin?

A. As a child, I helped my mother plant trees. My favorite was a Deodar cedar, and I swore I was going to name my first child Deodora. (I didn't; my daughter's name is Kate!) I remember walking through pine forests (grown for lumber, I now know) and being struck by their symmetry, and reading Longfellow and loving references to things like "the murmuring pines and the hemlocks." I won $10 in a Keep Virginia Clean contest when I was 10 (for a forest picture I did in pastels), and that, no doubt, launched my tree watching career!

All gardeners (and I am an avid gardener) come around to loving trees best eventually, because they are the biggest and best plants. I see them as symbols of perseverance—strength in adversity—slow, inexorable growth. I love comparing my small, puny, short-lived self to their large, strong, long-lived selves. And of course, trees have been around about 397 million years longer than people, so there is enormous wisdom in their biological adaptations.

Courtesy Robert Llewellyn
Q. Clearly, Seeing Trees was a challenging book to write and photograph. How long did it take you and Bob to put it together?

A. We worked about two years on Seeing Trees, but some of what we learned doing Remarkable Trees of Virginia [University of Virginia Press, 2009] also seeped into this book. The interesting thing is that, as Bob observes, he and I experienced no fewer "wow" moments in our two years of viewing our backyard trees up close (and traveling nowhere) than we did from viewing Virginia's most remarkable trees (and traveling almost 20,000 miles over four years)!

Q. This book is a terrific teaching tool. But it must have been a tremendous learning process for you, as well. What surprised you during the research?

A. Too much to tell! I guess my two favorite moments were when I saw the pollination droplets on the ginkgo ovules (in my windowsill), and when I heard American beech bud scales falling in my woodland. The sound of the latter is almost imperceptible, but it's real and will now, forever, be something I listen for in spring.

I enjoy doing research, and have lots of experts I call with questions. But I also enjoyed, over and over, hearing even experts say (about some of the things Bob and I were observing): "Well, you know, I've never seen that myself!" And these weren't unusual things, they were things that happen every year, like the "birth" of a red cedar cone. There is just so much that goes on outside our awareness.

Courtesy Robert Llewellyn
Q. You have magnificently revealed the extraordinary in ordinary trees. (I love the way you refer to a tree "behind the Burger King.") How has this book changed the way you see trees?

A. For one thing (and this is more a result of Remarkable Trees than Seeing Trees), I am forever looking for places where a 600-year-old tree can grow. Or a 200-year-old tree for that matter. There are just such few places you can trust to remain undisturbed for centuries. Cemeteries and some college campuses are good.

Also, once you see the kinds of things Bob and I discovered in Seeing Trees, you'll never not see them again (I love that double negative!). Once you've seen, say, the spear-like resting buds of the beech or the spur shoots of the ginkgo, you don't forget them. They are now part of your natural universe and just another way of connecting with nature.

[NOTE: Here is another brief video of Nancy Hugo, with more information on her website.]

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