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Levin: An American Classic

12/13/11 7:55AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Recently, nature writer and commentator Ted Levin was reminded of the joy of trees - inside as well as out.

(Levin) Several weeks ago, Annie and I sat in the kitchen eating breakfast on a perfectly windless late fall morning. As I looked out the window, red oak leaves rained down, as if every branch of every oak in the woods were releasing their leaves, simultaneously and continuously. When I awoke from my reverie, I realized that backyard raking, completed just the day before, would have to commence again - right after breakfast.

But first, I decided to consult a copy A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America by Donald Culross Peattie, a doorstop of a book that was originally published in 1950, to see if he had anything to say about the downpour of oak leaves. He didn't. But in the process, I rediscovered why A Natural History of Trees is an American classic.

In two volumes, divided by east and west, Peattie described more than four hundred species of trees. Each story is imbued with personality and is woven into the fabric of our own history on the continent. A third volume on southern trees was never completed. Peattie's prose is contagious.

About the burr oak, a rare resident of the Champlain lowlands, particularly Addison County, though fairly common in the Midwest, he said this: "A grand bur oak suggests a house in itself... No child who ever played beneath a bur oak will forget it."

It makes me want rush outside to find one to play under.

Peattie grew up in Chicago, which is not exactly the sylvan capital of the Western Hemisphere, during the early years of the twentieth century, and lived for varying periods of time in France, Wisconsin, and California. Both his parents were writers, and his wife was a novelist. He studied botany at Harvard and wrote lovingly and frequently about the nature of America, often eulogizing its lost forests and prairies.

About the white pine he wrote: "When the male flowers bloomed in the illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility..."

It makes me feel downright guilty about hosing pollen off my car.

But Peattie saved some of his most eloquent writing for a short two-page essay on the balsam fir, in which he justifies its use for Christmas.

"No harm, but only good, can follow from the proper cutting of young Christmas trees. And the destiny of Balsam, loveliest of them all, would otherwise too often be excelsior, or boards for packing cases, or newsprint bringing horror on its face into your home. Far better that the little tree should arrive, like a shining child at your door, breathing of all out of doors and cupping healthy North Woods cold between its boughs, to bring delight to human children."

Forget raking oak leaves, I want to go out and cut a little Christmas tree - even if I am Jewish.
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