Plant Vision: Giving Our Attention to the Trees Around Us

By Cypress Lawn Arboretum Director Josh Gevertz

I know this feeling of being a child, one of my first waking memories.  Running circle after circle on the lawn of my new family home around a ring of ivy. Three silver birches, Betula pendula, emergent from the center of the round as a harmonious triumvirate of brilliant white trunks, their bark furrowed brown in full maturity. I recall their distinctive catkins, the unmistakable flowering structures garnishing each drooping branch like little lamb’s tails. I remember the sensation of scattering a million tiny seeds to the wind and watching them dance down all around me to join the golden carpet of leaves, every autumn for twenty years. In all that time, though, I never knew their name.

I grew up surrounded by trees, including many non-natives and a wide majority of the several thousand in my town planted by people within the last half-century or so, gracing the front lawns of suburban bliss in an idyllic pocket valley of the East Bay Area hills. I recognize now that I was so fortunate to be raised in the everyday presence of trees, though at the time I gave them little, if any, of my attention. In hindsight, I took all of these trees for granted, every single inanimate one, for my entire childhood. To me, the trees just were, as they always had been and would be evermore. To my youthful mind, perhaps, they weren’t even really alive.

There is a notion that emerged in the late 1990s, of a common condition in our society, a tendency known as “plant blindness.”

This state of being, a term attributed to botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, is defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” Though I certainly saw trees as a young person, I very rarely noticed them, and I almost never gave them my attention. In essence, I was plant blind.

Somewhere along the way — which is a longer story, for another day — a transformation of intention emerged for me. I learned to truly see the trees and other plants around me, and came to discover the very inverse of plant blindness — my own plant vision! I now find joy in knowing the trees around me, in being able to call them by name and share meaningful moments in their presence each day. For this, my world is now richer, my sense of self and purpose have transformed, and my appreciation — and celebration — of the life around me is deeply rooted, and ever branching out.

Early on in my own journey of developing and embracing this plant vision, I discovered a wonderful book about California’s native arboreal beings. “Forest Trees of the Pacific Slope,” written by the preeminent forester George B. Sudworth in 1908, is a classic field manual for the identification of trees native to our Golden State.  The true gift of this guiding document lies in Sudworth’s conviction that there be life-sized, accurate, and detailed illustrations of each species’ leaves, cones or fruits, and seeds, as direct aids in the identification of a tree in the field.  The line drawings of artists C.L. Taylor, A.E. Hoyle, N. Brenizer, and others have helped me to meet and know dozens of native trees, and they may as well for any of you.

In the introduction Sudworth penned for this remarkable field guide, he describes his own personal philosophy, as both a forester and teacher, for the observation of trees:  “In order to know even a few trees well, a multitude of details must be learned and remembered … much of [this] knowledge is gained through long study by a partly unconscious absorption of small, indescribable, but really appreciable details.”

In this way, knowing trees is much like growing trees. Slow, bit by bit, so subtle you may not even realize it is happening in the moment.  But surely, steadily, as the years go by, a majesty emerges, an undeniable presence and awareness — a powerful transformation. I know this change, I’ve lived it, this is my story. The process grows on with each and every passing season, for no matter how much tree knowledge you have, there is always more to discover, and the chance at fresh wonderment to behold in the lifelong pursuit of a deeper understanding of nature itself. My one humble purpose, today, is to help others, anyone reading these words, to notice the trees you live alongside, to give them your attention for even the occasional moment, and, in time, to shed your own plant blindness.

Cypress Lawn Arboretum is just the place for sowing the seeds of your individual plant vision. With our ongoing movement to establish a fleet of “botanical monuments” to name and showcase dozens of our finest centurial specimens, the trees of Cypress Lawn are here on full display, patiently awaiting your arrival. Come visit our living collection soon, and whether you are a lifelong learner and seasoned observer of trees, or perhaps you are embracing your own plant vision for the very first time, there will always be a tree in our Arboretum worthy of giving your attention — just take a walk and see!



“Plant Blindness”

“Forest Trees of the Pacific Slope”: