For years, I've wished to be one of those people who can glance at a tree and have its name — in Latin — come dancing off my lips. As a child, I responded to involuntary enrollment in the Girl Scouts with a willful, stubborn ignorance, figuring that my death by poisonous berries would be worth it if it made my parents sick about forcing me to sleep on the ground. I have matured somewhat — enough to be embarrassed that I can stare at a tree heavy with acorns and still mumble, "I don't know, maybe an elm?"
But now that David Allen Sibley has shifted the focus of his beautiful and indispensable guidebooks from birds to trees, there's a chance I may be able to tell my beech from my birch. What made The Sibley Guide to Birds and Sibley's other bird books so readable was not just the useful way he presented the information. Sibley dominated the field because of his graceful illustrations, the loving detail and the unexpected poetry of his text. The Sibley Guide to Trees lives up to its predecessors.
An arrangement of hickory leaves is referred to as "unkempt." The hawthorn trunk is "weakly ridged, often fluted." The names of the trees are musical enough: shagbark hickory, blue gum eucalyptus, soapberry, umbrella magnolia. Each tree is identified by images of leaf, twig, flower, seed, fruit and bark, often with variations to account for the changes made by season and age. There is a map of where each tree grows, and physical descriptions, too, all condensed into a small space without looking cramped. (Read descriptions of Eve's necklace, the pagoda tree, the desert ironwood and others.)
Sibley explains his switch from birds to trees in the preface: "Learning about trees can be an entry point to understanding the natural world. But if birding is a window through which we admire our feathered neighbors passing by at a distance, studying trees is a door that opens wide and invites us in." The Sibley Guide to Trees has significant charm, almost to the point of making me want to pack it in a bag and wander into the woods.
I said almost.