Tree Magic - Published in the Town Courier

Sunday, May 24, 2015 - 8:21am

Tree Magic

When I was a kid, the film “Swiss Family Robinson” enchanted me.
I recall owning the book by Johann David Wyss, and I know I read it, but the movie captured my heart first. This was unusual. I almost always liked the book more than the movie—and almost always got to the book first.
But not “Swiss Family Robinson.” I didn’t even like the looks of the book, which had a thick cardboard cover with a color picture on it, similar to several of my “Bobbsey Twins” books from the same era. How did some modern-day artist know what Wyss intended the Robinson family to look like?
Actually, the movie had captured my imagination. The book never had a chance.
After I saw the movie, at about age six, I was obsessed with hopes and dreams of living as an adult in a tree.
Forget the shipwreck, forget marauding animals, and forget pirates. All I remember about the Swiss Family Robinson was their wonderful, magical—and secure—tree house.
As a kid, I devised a corrupt scheme to assure that my future would be spent in a tree. The oldest of four kids, I was adept at bending my younger siblings to doing my will. Most of that energy was focused on my brother, Kevin, just 19 months younger and the only one of my two and, eventually three, sibs who in our early years was allowed to kind of hang out in the yard with me outside the confines of a stroller.
Despite the fact that he could never catch up to being “the oldest,” Kevin was nearly a peer.
I noticed that he was being taught what, at the time, was pro-forma, boys-only stuff. My dad and others showed him about hammering and screwing things, and I figured that one day he would know how to build things. Meanwhile, I noted that I was being exposed to sewing; we made “sit-upons” in Brownies. It was clear to me that when the race to adulthood was won, I would not know how to build things.
I was going to need someone to build my treehouse and, I decided, the builder was going to be my brother Kevin.
I waited each day for my brother to make a false move, no matter how minor. Let him eat a piece of candy without permission, mutter something unpleasant under his breath, forget to brush his teeth—and then I would swoop in and threaten to “tell on him” unless he made certain promises involving building a tree house for me to live in when we were grown up. Fraternal crime by fraternal crime, my dream house in the tree grew in my imagination.
Looking back, I’ve often felt guilty and I have apologized several times. To my astonishment, Kevin doesn’t remember the time when I was designing his future.
I moved on.
Last night, I attended a program sponsored by the Muddy Branch Alliance, a volunteer group of concerned citizens who do a variety of things to protect the environment. They are especially concerned with protecting and restoring the vulnerable and degraded natural area surrounding the stream called Muddy Branch, which winds from Gaithersburg through North Potomac and eventually to the Potomac River.
The program, which was cosponsored by Watts Branch Watershed Alliance and Seneca Creek Watershed Partners, was about “champion” trees. The evening’s distinguished presenter was former teacher Joe Howard, who cofounded and was the inaugural director of the famous (to decades of parents of MoCo middle schoolers) Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center, where thousands of students learned about nature in a ground zero setting. In the years since he retired, Howard has led Montgomery County’s Champion Trees program.
Champion trees are big, ranging from the biggest trees around to smaller trees that are the biggest of their species. A member of the county’s Forestry Board, Howard knows all of the county’s many champions, leads tours to the trees, and pays personal visits to them when he is near one—which he likened to visiting an old friend.
The fascinating presentation was held at the intimate Shanghai Café at the Potomac Oak Shopping Center. Although many of the county’s champion trees, which Howard featured in photos during his presentation, are further south-county, an old friend of Howard’s was standing vigil just outside the meeting.
The giant White Oak, known locally as the “Travilah Oak,” greeted the 20–some meeting goers as they left the restaurant at meeting’s end, discretely, yet distinctly, lit against the night sky.
I’m all grown up now, and I have come to terms with life outside a tree house. Conveniently, I have even developed an uncomfortable acrophobic squeamishness in the last few years.
However, last night as I walked across the parking lot to my car after the meeting, my eyes were not on but literally in the graceful, silhouetted branches of Travilah Oak, and some force was tugging me toward it.
What has it seen? What secrets does it know? Who has it sheltered?
Some things we do know. Thank goodness for the hundreds of years of cool shade and lowered temperatures it has contributed, the air pollution it has absorbed and processed, the countless gallons of water runoff it has reduced, slowed and purified.
Trees are magic in so many ways. I am grateful that there are people like those in the Muddy Branch Alliance working to save them, because in so many ways they save us.
For more information on the Muddy Branch Alliance, including their upcoming events calendar, visit