Trees Of Willamette University
Bill Long 7/18/07
Stopping and Smelling the....Deodar Cedars, for Example
One of the things I finally want to learn about now that I have paid my debt to nature is all the trees that are around me. I not only want to learn their English and Latin names, but I want to be able to identify their leaves and cones and bark and learn all kinds of things about them. Trees provide as much pleasure at times in life as a good dog (and much more pleasure than most people provide in life), so they should be welcomed, honored and patiently understood. So, I confronted the problem of how to begin to learn about trees.
The issue is harder, at first, than learning about flowers, because for the latter I just go to nurseries and big home stores and take loads of notes before going home and looking individual flowers up on the Net. Store salespeople wonder what I am doing as I touch and study their plants; but I think that if you are going to be a lover of knowledge in the world, you will have to get over other people's discomfort at your patience in learning. In studying my trees, however, I decided to begin with Reed College's published maps, pictures and descriptions of all its campus trees (more than 1000 of them). Here is the link.
So, I spent several hours on the Reed campus a few weeks ago, and worked through all the trees in five of the 33 map sections for the campus. I look forward to a return visit soon. But Reed is in Portland, 50 miles away, and I don't want to go there all the time to look at trees. Portland also has a heritage tree program where hundreds of other trees throughout the city are mapped out for those who want to know. I needed something closer to home, closer to my life in Salem. Then, I thought, I found it!
No one has shouted "Eureka!" louder than I when I discovered a Willamette University web page entitled "tree species list." It lists, by tag number, about 400 or so trees that have been "marked" on campus, along with their English and Latin names. I was in heaven because I could just go down to the campus, check out numbers, learn the trees, come home and look them up and study more about them and gradually begin to fill in the vast empty spaces in my knowledge. There are about 65 or so distinct types of tree at Willamette. Reed has about 80 or so (this means that "Pine" is just one "type" of tree; exemplars such as Ponderosa Pine or Scotch Pine are included as just "one" tree), and this means that even though there is considerable overlap between the two lists, I can have 100 trees in my mind's bank if I just pay attention to them.
So, with great eagerness I went on Willamette's campus last night to check out the trees. I had the experience of Reed in mind when I began to study the Willamette trees. That was mistake # 1. There simply is no comparison with the way Reed has presented its trees and the way Willamette cares for its "web" presentation of its natural history. Reed's is systematic, with pictures and helpful explanatory material. Willamette's is, as I will show, contradictory, overlapping, incomplete and frustrating. The Willamette folk will probably tell me, if I asked, that they had to rely on student work to mark the trees while Reed got a "grant" to do it, but this is still not a good excuse for shoddy work--unless that is the best you think the university can do.
Yet, as I was thinking about it, maybe Willamette did a lousy job on its tree list (I will illustrate below) because it really had a deep awareness of the process of learning. That is, I have often said in these pages that I usually learn more from a mistake-riddled book than from a "perfect" book because the former stimulates me to take control of my learning and to make it right. Whenever I read a biography, for example, I find mistakes and I am enriched by the extra work I have to do to make things right. So I thought, as I looked at Willamette's trees, that maybe they were simply trying to get it wrong in order to encourage people like me really to put out effort in order to get things right. In that regard, Willamette's approach--getting things wrong--might be a superior way of educating people than elitist Reed's approach--where things are just given to you correctly. After all, if people just give you things correctly, what incentive do you have to learn--since someone already knows the answer?
To the Trees
Well, I decided to begin to look at some trees just north of the physical plant shed at Willamette. There is a lawn that isn't much used, and there are nine towering or spreading trees on it. I was ready to begin. So, I looked for the tags. Thankfully, eight of the nine trees were tagged. I eagerly wrote down the numbers and then looked them up on the web site. But then my confusion began. The first was tree # 56. On the chart tree # 56 is the Douglas Fir, the Pseudotsuga menziesii. But then I saw that the entry just below this one also was # 56 and was listed as a Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa. I was amazed. How could this tree be two at once? I decided after loking at it for a bit that it was a Ponderosa Pine. Actually, because Willamette called it two things, I had to review my knowledge of both trees in order to make sure which it was. Thanks, Willamette.
So, I went on in that grove of nine. Tree # 38 was next and, oops, what do you know. It is called either a Ponderosa Pine or a Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacea-- I thought it was spelled pseudoacacia). Now, it is quite easy to tell the difference between the two, but I even began to wonder if we had a Ponderosa Pine here. I also wondered, however, why Willamette would post online the identical number for the trees with two widely different species? Is there a second series of repeating numbers of trees somewhere in the university? Since tree # 34 and # 35 are not taken, why didn't they use # 34 or # 35 for something? Well, I think I am taking them probably more seriously than they ever intended on being taken, but you are getting the point.
We are really not doing well so far, are we? Out of the first three trees, we have one that isn't marked and two that are given two separate names. I don't want to go through all the "grove of nine" but I will say that out of the nine, one wasn't labeled, five were given a number that has two entries on the web page, and only three were indisputably what the web page said they were (a Big Leaf Maple, Japanese Maple and a Horse Chestnut).
At first I was bothered that Willamette would screw things up so badly and publish it for the world to see. I modified my view a bit when I realized that their errors actually are inspiring me to "get things straight." So I will return to the campus later today, I think, for round two. But, before I do, I have to introduce some other problems with their site.