“From the beginning of time, trees have occupied a prime position in the life of man. They have provided him with food, with shelter, and even with transportation. In his spiritual life they have often been used as symbols; they have played a part in both his legend and his history. Man has planted them, and when it served his purpose, he has cut them down; he has venerated them on the one hand and destroyed them wantonly on the other. From his cradle to his grave, the tree has been his silent friend.”
Autumn is a time when our attention is naturally drawn to trees with their profound changes in color, and we cannot ignore their presence. Some years bring a more lengthy change of season, but at some time during the fall, we are sure to witness canopies of vermilion, yellow hues and purple colors swaying in the cooling fall breezes.
Even before we homeschooled our children, or had heard of “nature study,” activities involving trees seemed like the natural thing to do in the fall. We raked leaves into large piles and jumped in them. Inevitably, some of the leaves would be brought in to make leaf rubbings. We turned them face down on the table with the vein side up and covered them with a piece of paper. I showed my children how to rub a peeled crayon over it to magically reveal the design underneath. This usually prompted a discussion about what kinds of trees the leaves came from, why they change color in fall, and so forth.
Adopt a Tree
We used trees as one of our first nature study topics in our homeschool. I had each child select a tree that could be seen from our windows, and I explained that they would be “adopting” it for one year. We observed our chosen trees in all four seasons, drew them, and took notes about various changes.
During a guided winter hike, we learned that we could identify a tree by clues such as its bark, height, shape, and location, even in the absence of leaves. Just as human families have common physical characteristics, the same is true of trees and their scientific families. During ice storms, we watched with concern as our trees became melancholy under the weight of freezing rain, which caused their boughs to droop towards the ground. Eventually, the sun shining on the icy branches sparkled like glass, and our trees shone as God’s carefully crafted crystal sculptures.
We celebrated as the branches began to bulge with buds in spring, holding within them the promise of lush green leaves for summer shade. In the warming days of early summer, we gathered in the hammock, and our favorite American Elms seemed to rock us gently in their arms. We quietly observed which birds made their homes in our trees, and watched as they fed and watered themselves in the shelter of their shade.
As an extreme drought progressed this summer, we watched sadly as the leaves of our parched young maples began to yellow and wither, as if the trees were dying. We discovered that their condition, called “leaf scorch,” is brought on by an imbalance in water due to hot winds and a prolonged dry period. Moisture was lost faster through transpiration than the roots could supply it to the leaves. Tough times in nature also offer valuable lessons for life.
Most Beneficial Contribution
How silly it seems now that, during those first days of nature study, I worried that we should be inside at a desk, doing something more academic. Yes, we did use mathematics as we roughly measured the height of our trees using our shadows, a yardstick, and some simple formulas. The children developed some art skills as they experimented with charcoal or colored pencils to achieve the best drawing of their subjects. But perhaps the most subtle, and yet most beneficial, contribution to their development was simply spending time outdoors, building a sense of awe for God through His amazing handiwork.
Artist Norman Kent said, “For the artist to paint pictures of trees…he must first learn something of their essential structure, the individual characteristics of particular trees, their textures, their barren and leafed versions. How then can this be achieved except by going directly to nature and learning to draw them?” The trees we studied became more than just an assignment. They became more than acquaintances. Because we spent time with them, we know their names and their characteristics. They have become our friends whose company we will enjoy for a lifetime.
Our students are older now, so we will be learning more complex lessons in our study of trees this fall. However, in all our nature studies, enjoyment of creation will remain a priority. In the words of Albert Einstein…”Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift.”
Resources and Books for Trees Nature Study:
- Handbook of Nature Study (pages 618-692) Lessons can be adapted for all ages.
- Explore the Deep Woods- Forestry Curriculum for grades 7-12
- Take a field trip to view fall foliage
- For identification: Forest Trees of Oklahoma
- Tree Study Journal Pages
- Johnny Appleseed
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (all ages)
- Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter (middle school age & high school, or read aloud)
- Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter (middle school age & high school or read aloud)
- Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect by Richard H. Schneider (all ages)
- The Tale of Three Trees by Angela Elwell Hunt (for all ages)
- Leaf Man and Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf…both by Lois Ehlert (preschool and younger elementary)
“Now far and near on field and hill
We watch the death of chlorophyll
As earl autumn rushes in
With xanthophyll and carotin.
I hold that ignorance is bliss
Considering the fact that this
Is how a botanist perceives
The colorings of autumn leaves.”
(So This is Autumn by W.W. Watt)
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
(Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” 1914)
Who leaves the pine-tree, leaves his friend,
Unnerves his strength, invites his end.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Woodnotes”)
It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)
Alone with myself
The trees bend to caress me
The shade hugs my heart
He that planteth a tree is a servant of God, he provideth a kindness for many generations, and faces that he hath not seen shall bless him.
(Henry Van Dyke)
Note: First printed in the fall 2011 OCHEC Informer, a quarterly magazine published by the Oklahoma Christian Home Educators’ Consociation.