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A Summer Full of Questions

To identify a tree, we first have to identify its characteristics. This summer I've had to identify the tree of heaven probably over a hundred times and yet I still find myself asking the same question to any tree that even remotely resembles a tree of heaven, what are you?


I first learned of a tree of heaven in my Dendrology class. We looked at a PowerPoint slide with its identification traits. Its long leaves and cantaloupe bark. Afterward, we went into the field and found a tree of heaven. What our professor had not told us about was the smell that tree of heaven produces. So naturally, when she asks us to sniff we did as we were told. We were expecting something nice like a sourwood’s fruit loop smell or perhaps the sweet aroma of a linden tree. Instead, we got the smell of burnt peanut butter and for some, cat litter. Fast forward six months later and here I am sniffing anything that resembles the tree of heaven hoping to smell that cat litter. Here’s what I have learned so far, question everything and smell with caution.


I often wondered what makes us so interested in trees and why we choose to study them. I’m starting to think that this one question has led me to enjoy the work that I do.


The other day while we were in the field looking for the tree of heaven I noticed something on the bark. I saw what resembled egg masses, but unfortunately, the stem was too far for us to examine up close. it was here again where I asked myself what are you? I looked at the color I looked at the size and the shape of the. I took a picture as closely as I could to examine it later when I got home. upon closer examination, we noticed it was just l lichen. Even though it was not what we were expecting, the process of questioning what it is has to be some of the most exciting moments in one's field day.

tree of heaven with lichen on its bark
A tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) with lichen on its bark.
Leslie Vargas
This past week I spent many afternoons in a forest preserve with my family. Of course, I was identifying every tree we walked past. My family began to ask how it was that I could tell these trees apart. Naturally, I started with leaf and bark identification. A few days later the mini-lesson I had given them was being regurgitated, along with new questions. But it always starts with “What is this?” and then devolves into more specific questions about the tree’s form and function. 
Forest preserve bridge
The forest preserve I visit
Leslie Vargas
I never realized how curious of a person I was. I question everything. I'm starting to understand that there is so much unknown and that I must keep questioning. This summer has continued to develop my curiosity and I find myself asking more questions every day. 


What questions do you ask?


About the Author
Hello, My name is Leslie Vargas, I am an REU student funded by the Doris Duke Conservation Scholar program. I am a senior at the University of the South in Sewanee TN majoring in Natural Resources and the Environment with minors in Psychology and Environmental studies.