Teaching the Trees, by Joan Maloof

This neat little book was recommended to me by Mark West, who taught a tree class I took at Young Harris College’s Institute for Continued Learning (ICL). It focuses on various trees and their relationships, particularly with insects. The author is a retired biology and environmental studies professor at Salisbury College in Salisbury, Maryland. It’s not a heavy read, but it is full of interesting information. She covers a dozen or so trees along with some general topics; the whole book is only about 150 pages long. The cover illustration is of the luna moth and the sweetgum, which apparently is the moth’s favorite larval host. (We don’t have a sweetgum in our yard, so the emerging luna that I posted photos of last spring must have come from another host.)

The illustrations are by John Abbot, and were taken from a book published in London in 1787, The natural history of the rarer lepidoterous insects of Georgia. Including their systematic characters, the particulars of their several metamorphoses, and the plants on which they feed. Collected from the observations of Mr. John Abbot, many years resident in that country. (From the date, I’d guess he lived in or near Savannah.) Unfortunately, the one on the cover is the only one in color. Also unfortunately, Maloof could have done more to identify the specific trees and butterfly/caterpillars in the drawings. For instance, there are two identified simply as “oak” – one looks like a white or post oak, but I don’t recognize the butterfly. I’m not sure about either the oak or the butterfly in the other one.

Obviously, the author likes trees, and she doesn’t much like seeing them cut down. But there’s lots of good scientific information here. For years, the study of plants focused first on taxonomy – naming it, placing it in a family, and deciding whether it was a new species. Second, it focused on establishing its range. (The great Indiana biologist, Charles Deam, spent a lifetime just discovering new plants in Indiana and establishing their range.) But ecological thinking says that if you know these two things, you know something, but you still don’t know very much. You don’t really know the organism until you know its relationships – how it lives, and who it likes to live with and how they interact. You could say, “how it makes its living.” That’s the focus of this book, and Maloof continually points out that there are a lot of things we still don’t know about these things.

The book isn’t overly literary, but in addition to liking trees, Maloof likes Rilke, and there are many quotations from the Ninth Elegy woven into the text. Its reprinted in full in the appendix.

Teaching the Trees: Lessons From the Forest, by Joan Maloof. University of Georgia Press, 2005.

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