“I want to find the pecan tree,” I tell C, “even if we cannot find it today. I read that one lives among the hickories.”
That desire leads us to the hickory stand. After finishing our ice cream, we resisted the temptation of the restaurant selling ramen and trekked straight down Centre Street back into the forest of the arboretum.
As we re-entered, I struggled not to linger by each tree. We hiked by the honeylocust now without their long bean-like pods; we wondered at the Japanese pagoda trees, but when we reached the hickories, I dove in.
Now, the shagbark hickory salutes us with its long slabs of bark peeling right off the tree. It reminds me of a grandfather with a long, grey, unkempt beard. These shaggy seniors constitute most of the grove, but still I angle for the tags, searching for my desired pecan: shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory, pignut hickory. Nope. I move to the smaller trees: Carolina silverbells, mountain silverbells, pink Carolina silverbells. Nope.
“What’s that?” C asks, suddenly. I follow her gaze to yellow clumps at the base of three trees.
“Maybe fungus?” I guess hopefully.
We move to check it out, discovering yellow shreds in a pile.
“It’s cauliflower?” I ventured. I pick up the shreds, which are thin with a brain-like texture on the ends.
“They are seeds,” I correct myself, “and the arboretum staff has intentionally scattered them all around.”
We follow these shredded piles, like birds following breadcrumbs, until at last we find ourselves at the base of a curvy tree littered with shreds. At our feet lay a dozen softball-sized spheres, green, wrinkled with brain-like lines. I pick one up for C to take a picture.
“Osage orange,” a stranger says to us, “the squirrels love them, and leave their remains littered by the trees. If you look at the base of the tree and its roots, you see the orange that gave the tree its name.”
We look at the orange streaks on the loopy trunks jutting from the earth.
Wandering farther down the path, we encounter a squirrel family busy getting ready for the season: one bringing leaves to the nest, another nibbling down an osage orange, and another sitting plumply in silent meditation. This winter world brims with life.
On that trail, too, we spot, at last, the skinny young pecan tree.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I cry in excitement, glad to have made another new acquaintance.
The trail moves us gently through an unlabeled forest and back to the conifers. The sun readies itself for bed. It’s warm gleam streaming through the tall pine trees.
As the trail leads us out, we bid goodbye to the trees we pass: Siberian spruce, silver fir, sachalin fir, koyama fir and finally golden larch. Back again, we sidle along the gate and empty out onto the concrete sidewalk.
As we say farewell and head back to our cars, the outdoors beckons us still with its berries, its buds, its ramen, and its promises of love.
Even as temperatures drops and the chill of the pandemic deepens, still, life waits outdoors. Still, life beckons.
Come outside, it says.
Come outside and play.