The Mongrel Naturalist

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted with permission.)

I’m not much of a field naturalist, I have to admit. Large percentages of the birds, trees, and insects are beyond my naming or knowing much about. It’s not something I’m proud of, but at this point I can only hope to gain that sort of deep knowledge as I have the chance.

On the other hand, there are specific plants and animals that I know and appreciate. Their presence in the outdoors adds joy to my experience, and sometimes leads to associations in my mind.

There’s nothing subtle about these natural wonders, no keen eye required to pick them out. Nothing else really looks like they do — which is probably why I notice them. Call it the lazy guy’s guide to Ma Nature.

Take my favorite tree…or shrub, to some. Just west of St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, on the north side of Highway 41, are several sumacs. No matter the time of year, they’re easy to spot.

When sumacs’ leaves are still attached, they are in a pattern called pinnate, which means the leaves occur in pairs off a common stem. Think of a fern, or a feather. In the fall, those leaves are often the ones that turn first, and they often turn the reddest, most vivid crimson.

Then, in winter, sumacs do the most distinctive thing of all. First, they drop their leaves and the stems to which they’re attached, leaving only the main branches. Then, at the tip of every branch is a deeply red, pointed cluster called a drupe or sumac bob. To me, they look like dark-blood flames.

As I mentioned, my mind has this habit of making connections, or associations. In the early 1980s, a TV miniseries based in Africa was titled “The Flame Trees of Thika.” I seriously doubt that there are sumacs in Kenya, but I still think of that title every time I see those pointed plumes of color.

Nor do the connections end there. In the account in the Book of Acts of the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon the apostles like tongues of flame. Maybe it’s the starkness of their shapes against the winter woods that makes the sumacs’ drupes seem ethereal, even spiritual. Yet another take on “flame trees.”

The most common type in these parts is the staghorn sumac, so called because when the Latin name was bestowed upon it in the 18th century, its branches were said to be “rough like antlers in velvet.”

The name is pronounced two ways: “soo-mack” and “shoo-mack.” There’s a tale that the playwright George Bernard Shaw once was asked, “Did you know that ‘sugar’ and ‘sumac’ are the only two words in the English language spelled with ‘su-‘ and pronounced with a ‘sh-‘ sound?”

To which Shaw replied, “Sure!”

I highly value my mongrel collection of knowledge about this simple if distinctive member of the local plant kingdom. To me, it’s the links we form with the world we’re in — whether through art, music, literature, family tales, or merely observation — that give meaning to our days.