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Trees of Western North America (Princeton Field Guides)
Trees of Western North America (Princeton Field Guides)
Richard Spellenberg
Princeton University Press, 2014
560 pp., $60.00

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Paul J. Willis


Naming & Knowing

A splendid field guide to trees, best used at your desk.

It began with a booklet my father brought home from his office one day: Trees to Know in Oregon. I carried it around with me to see what I could identify in our backyard, starting with the Douglas fir and moving on to white oak, bigleaf maple, and Port Orford cedar—the latter, I found, planted just a hundred miles outside its natural range. The backside of the Port Orford leaf sprays sported a column of white X's, unlike the sprays of western red cedar in the Cascades, which looked like stacks of butterflies, and also unlike the sprays of incense cedar, in the warmer, southern part of the state, which appeared as a series of inset goblets.

So, I was off, learning the names and shapes of things—of these trees that, more than anything, defined the Pacific Northwest. Shy as I was, I felt that I was making friends. Later I would learn that the poet Rilke had said, "Through naming comes knowing," and I thought that I understood what he meant. My knowing has never been of a highly scientific kind—in college I would labor to learn the photosynthetic Krebs Cycle, only to have it pedal through one ear and cycle lamely out the other—and I often go through spells of forgetting, and have to be re-introduced to former acquaintances. But a lifelong satisfaction remains of sometimes knowing the names of trees and recalling, even, a few of their quirks and characteristics.

I have graduated over the years to more substantial field guides to the flora and fauna of various regions: the Santa Monica Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, the Siskiyous, the Olympic Peninsula. Some of these guides have talked over my head, some have confused me with out-of-focus photographs, and some have left out more than they might have included. So when John Wilson, in his infinite kindness, sent me a copy of Trees of Western North America, the latest in the series of Princeton Field Guides, I knew I would want to explore its merits. The first thing to know about this ...

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