Treemendously nostalgic

(This post has been sitting in my WordPress drafts folder for, oh, a month and a half. I thought it was time it finally saw the light of day).

Lately, with all the time I’ve been spending in nature (and maybe I’ll actually write about that directly at some point!) I have been thinking about high school, Science Olympiad, and the Treemendous competition.

I was involved in Science Club for several years in high school, and every year we participated in the regional and the state Science Olympiad, a series of science-based challenges for a team of fifteen. Our team, from a Catholic high school in rural Plattsburgh, New York, usually did okay in the regional competition — enough to advance to the state event — but terribly in the state tournament, often placing in the bottom ten. (Theoretically there is a national competition, but that was always out of reach for us).

Both the state and the regional tournaments had the same individual events, but they did change from year to year. I was excited the year that “Treemendous” was added to the list — a challenge to identify North American trees by genus and species. It might have been new that year; I certainly hadn’t heard of it in the other years I’d been involved with the club. I volunteered to study for Treemendous that year, because it was the only vaguely ecological one, and I thought I’d be good at it. Hey, I could tell an oak from a maple!

… she did not do well at it, dear reader.

For one thing, the regional event used branches from winter trees. I apparently didn’t think this would be a possibility, even though the event was in the middle of (I think) February in the blasted heath of northern New York, USDA zone 3b to 4a. If it even crossed my mind as a possibility that “hey, there won’t be any local trees with leaves on them,” I must have dismissed it as “no one can identify trees in winter!” (Not true. It is very possible to identify winter trees. But you have to look for a different set of features, since you can’t rely on the leaves and blossoms).

Photo taken in March 2020. Pretty sure these are leaf buds of American beech (Fagus grandifolia), but did I know that in 1998? I did not.

Despite all that, I somehow I muddled through well enough to go on to the state event — I want to say the test was multiple choice, and didn’t use Latin names, but the biggest contributing factor was probably that everyone else did just as badly as I did.

Somehow we made it to the state competition that year, which I want to say took place in April or May, at West Point. The state Treemendous event used pressed samples of trees (not all of them native to New York), so in some ways it was easier. And yet, I did even worse. The IDs required Latin binomial names, and you actually had to recall them, rather than just recognizing them for a list — a task which is always more cognitively demanding.

Plus I soon realized that while I knew that an oak was genus Quercus, I could not remember that a white oak is Quercus alba and a northern red oak is Quercus rubra, nor did I have any idea how to tell the two apart. (I do now, sorta. White oak has rounded leaf tips).

Decayed white oak leaf
Now, THIS is a white oak leaf.

I think I came in dead last, or near it.

I haven’t put much effort into learning to identify trees since then, and it’s only since I’ve gotten into iNaturalist that I’ve been picking it back up, mostly because I got bored with the endless mountain laurel/partridgeberry/teaberry undergrowth in New England woods, and wanted a new challenge. I’ve come to some conclusions since then:

1) I would have done much better at Treemendous if iNaturalist had been a Thing when I was in high school. (I was in high school in the late 1990s, and it was mostly pre-internet).


2) I was studying in an absolutely awful way. And there was nobody telling me to do it any differently. (Theoretically, that’s what our faculty advisor/coach should have been doing. But for all that I adored Mr. Dilley, he was a chemistry teacher, not a botanist).

How I should have been studying was by doing actual tree identification. And yet I can’t think of one time I took my field guides and walked around my neighborhood trying to identify trees. And if iNat had existed, pulling up the Identify tab and filtering by “plants” and “Clinton County, New York” would also be a useful training exercise.

Either way, I know now what I didn’t know then (thanks, in part, to the great MOOC Learning How to Learn): that testing is learning. And I was definitely not testing my tree ID skills in any substantial way.

What I was doing instead was… making flash cards? Basically they were index cards with the common name, the Latin name, and a few facts about the tree. I might have written down if, say, the leaves were alternate or opposite, but I am pretty sure that nowhere did I use the term “leaf scar,” or any of the things that would have helped me to identify a tree in winter.

Also it took a lot of time to make flash cards — I was writing them by hand! — and I was not, let us say, particularly diligent about my study time for this event. (I was not particularly diligent about anything, really. Let’s remember I’ve had undiagnosed and untreated ADHD up until early this year).

Flash cards have their uses, but without real examples, none of the stuff I was learning stuck in my head. At least if I had been looking at real trees in my neighborhood, I would have been creating a memory palace out of my own neighborhood: like “oh yes, that’s a white oak I saw on the corner of Wells and Cornelia streets.” (Note: that’s a real intersection, but I have no idea if there’s actually a white oak there. Please do not take this as arboreal advice).

Even today, all my facts about, say, eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) are connected to the first instance of it I ever identified, along the Cochituate Brook Rail Trail in Framingham. Which was in the Year of Our Lord 2019, at age 39, not long after I discovered iNaturalist. Thinking about that particular tree — like accessing any good node in a memory palace — is like an opening a drawer full of facts: That it flowers before the leaves are out. That the flowers often bud right off large branches. That the leaves are heart-shaped, large, and alternate on the branch. That the fruit is a bean-like pod (unsurprisingly, since it’s in the legume family, Fabaceae), which often remains on the tree through the winter. I didn’t remember the full binomial name off the top of my head, but I did recall it was species “canadensis” and that the genus started with a “c” — I could have passed a multiple choice question, if nothing else!

Do I regret my misspent youthful opportunities? Eh, maybe a little 😉

For what it’s worth, Science Olympiad is still a thing! However, Treemendous is no longer an event. It doesn’t even show up in the archived events, nor in a search! Maybe they, like I did for so many years, prefer to pretend it never existed 😉 Nonetheless I was pleased to see they now have a number of ecology- and nature-themed ones, including an ornithology challenge, and a proposed botany one, as well.

I’ll lament again, like I have before, that educational and enrichment activities like this are often seen as the domain of kids — as if you should stop learning when you’re an adult! So yes, maybe I do wish there was a Science Olympiad for adults 😉 I’d do a lot better today, now that I actually know how to study effectively. Youth really is wasted on the young!

I guess the closest I can get to that is setting ID challenges for myself, educating and learning on iNat and my nature groups, and maybe participating in bioblitzes, or other identification events.

Three early memories about stories

Twixt Love and Honor/The Duel, chromolithograph from a painting by Laslett John Pott.
Twixt Love and Honor/The Duel, chromolithograph from a painting by Laslett John Pott.

The first story I remember writing was called “The Burglar and the Bear.” It was written with cherry-scented markers on notebook paper, and I was in second grade.

I’m pretty sure I remember the genesis of this story, too — a jar you could pull story prompts out of in my second-grade classroom. It might have been part of the ongoing project where we created our own “anthology” in a blank journal we were given — or maybe that was third grade. Either way, I kept at it even when I wasn’t getting graded on it.

At around the same time, I started playing a game with other girls in my class during recess; we would pretend we were dogs, living under a picnic bench, which happened to be in Alaska. (I don’t even know). We were each different breeds of dogs, most of which we knew of thanks to pages of full-color photographs of different breeds in the school library’s encyclopedias. I think I was a beagle. Someone else picked an Alaskan malamute, because I guess a Siberian husky wasn’t interesting enough?

Eventually I started writing them down, because if they were entertaining enough to play out once, they were entertaining enough to read about later, right?

When my dad was visiting recently, I spent a long time sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Home Depot, reading. Far from being unpleasant, it was a nostalgic feeling (and definitely preferable to spending an hour arguing with Matt and my father about cement).

Why was this so comfortable for me? It reminded me of the number of times I stayed behind in the car as a child.

Not through any neglect on the part my parents, understand. We traveled a lot by car, because plane tickets were often out of reach. My parents were also antique dealers, so we stopped at every garage, rummage, tag, yard, or estate sale we found, as well as every fleamarket and antique shop. When a ten-year-old nerdy girl gets bored of staring at Depression glass, she goes back to her books.

And my books were in the car.

And we lived in an era in which it wasn’t seen as vast neglect to do this. Dude, the windows (and doors) were open, I wasn’t suffocating. I was happy reading Marion Zimmer Bradley while my parents “invested” in boxes of heat-resistant chocolate bars from the first Gulf War.

This was one way in which I coped with the stuff my parents found interesting and I found boring.

(Another way was building stories from the paintings and knick-knacks and furniture that surrounded me–pretending I was a princess in a nebulous fantasy-land composed of netsuke, ruby flash souvenir glass, faux-ormolu clocks and cigar-box Romantic art. That’s the next anecdote).

It was also how I managed stuff which was too much, emotionally, for me to handle. I remember sitting in the car in a cemetery in Connecticut at the burial of one of my parents’ friends, for example.

Over my seldom-used writing desk, I still have a print that used to be hanging in my mom’s antique shop — called “Twixt Love and Honor,” it depicts two 18th-century gentlemen about to duel over a woman’s honor.

Recently, I researched the print, and found it was a chromolithograph based on an 1892 painting by Laslett Pott. (Which itself might have been a colorized version of an 1886 engraving called “The Duel”). In the late 19th century you could apparently send in 25 tobacco wrappers from the Wilson and McCalley Tobacco Company to purchase this or one of two other framed prints in the series. (I think they’re the ones who added the “TWIXT LOVE AND HONOR” text, as by all accounts that was not the name Pott gave the painting).

I realize by any aesthetic standard, this isn’t a beautiful picture. For all I know, Pott could have been the Thomas Kinkade of his day, and the artifact itself is mass-produced, its frame and backing falling apart, faded with years of sun exposure. But it’s beautiful to me.

It hangs over my writing desk because… this is where it all began. I distinctly remember walking around my mom’s antique shop before school one day (middle school), creating stories from the objects I found there. My story for this one was not quite the same as the one implied by the art; I was convinced it showed a couple being set upon by bandits at a crossroads. I didn’t even notice the print’s name; I only learned it when I asked my mom, “remember that print that used to hang in your shop…?” At that time, she told me she’d never sold it, and sent it on to me.

I’m not sure what the point of this post is, but these are three stories about stories, remnants of my youth, that I wanted to share.

What are your early memories of stories?

My grandmother’s kitchen

Reheating my trashy frozen food like a boss

I don’t know what prompted me to write about this — maybe thinking about my love of so-called “trashy” foods, and how the foods we ate on my mother’s side of the family were emblematic of poverty.

The thing to know here is — I’m not kidding when I use the term “poverty.” My life has always been comfortable, but my mom’s was not. I spent loads of time growing up with my maternal grandmother and my aunt (my mother’s older sister); their lives were a lot better by the time I came around, but they were still poor, even by the standards of a poor part of the country.

We ate well, from a certain perspective. We never went hungry. But the foods I ate were… very different than what I ate in my own home, and very different than I suspect my peers were raised on.

To name just a few of the things we ate…

  • White bread, above all. At home I ate wheat, although in the 80s “wheat bread” was basically just white bread with caramel coloring.
  • Bologna. My grandmother lived on bologna sandwiches with mayo on white bread. I still remember the order she sent me into the corner grocery store all the time: a quarter-pound of garlic bologna.
  • Occasionally, if we got fancy, there was olive loaf. Or turkey (which my grandmother ate with butter. Yuck).
  • Speaking of processed meat products… Spam! Or Treet, or some off-brand thing. Looooooved pan-fried Spam sandwiches on English muffins. Still do.
  • there was, in fact, government cheese. Though I don’t think anyone actually liked it…
  • Cheese sandwiches (toasted or not) and grilled cheese were a thing, but always with American cheese singles, the kind with the consistency of the plastic they’re wrapped in.
  • Omelettes. Except my grandmother called them “cheese eggs,” and told me how she had learned to make them from my Uncle Sonny after he came back from the Navy.
  • For all this use of fake cheese, there was almost always real cheddar in the house, too. They just… didn’t put it in anything?
  • Tinned vegetables, never frozen, and rarely fresh. I remember complaining to my mom that the frozen peas we ate at home didn’t taste as good as the (salty, mushy) canned peas.
  • Canned soups. Still unironically love Campbell’s Cream of Celery.
  • Boiled eggs. It was also a treat to get pickled eggs when we went to bingo.
  • Always, always tea in the afternoon, which was Salada black tea served with sweetened condensed milk. I thought it was disgusting, at the time.
  • My grandmother perc’ed her coffee, which I’m told is also disgusting, tho I never tried it.
  • Boiled dinner – that very New England meal of bits of corned beef, cabbage, carrots, and potato.
  • Roast beef, which my grandmother would cook to the point of leatheriness
  • Frozen fish sticks
  • TV dinners
  • This disgusting macaroni soup with tomatoes and hamburger (always ground chuck, because it was cheap), which I disliked even then
  • Hamburgers (again, from ground chuck) and hot dogs
  • Apple crisp. Learned to make it from my aunt.
  • Always ice cream. Store-brand vanilla.
  • Popsicles
  • Strawberry shortcake when berries were in season, which they made by smashing up berries and putting it on those bright yellow cakes. With Cool Whip on top, of course.
  • In summer, there was raw rhubarb with salt
  • Nobody drank water as a beverage. Nobody. There was, as I said, tea and coffee. There was always Coke in the house. (My mother was a Pepsi drinker, though, and I take after her in that regard). There was “orange juice,” which was usually an artificially sweetened orange-like beverage like Sunny D. There was Kool-Aid in summer.
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Gravy from a mix
  • Pizza was too newfangled for my grandmother (this was not my Italian grandmother, mind), but there was occasionally frozen pizza, like Mama Celeste.
  • when all else failed, Burger King. My grandmother loooooved Burger King.
  • Or that regional treat, michigans.

What foods did you eat growing up? Are they similar or different from what you eat today?

#TBT, the text edition (Thursday, January 22nd)

I love the idea of Throwback Thursday, but I never participate — mostly because I seem to perpetually lack pictures of myself.

Words, however. I’ve got words in abundance.

So have some words from the past.

January 22, 2004. So…. if I got a webcam so that I could keep an eye on Burnbright during the day while I’m at work, would that be a redeeming use of a webcam? (I suspect this wasn’t long after I got him — which I think was in November of 2003)

January 22, 2006. After seeing this casting questionnaire for a LARP I’m attending at InterCon this year, holy shit, I’ll never complain about casting questionnaires again. This one is quite literally likely to reduce me to tears. My favorite “bug-eyed monster”? My favorite universe? Essay questions involving theremin and Vogon poetry? ::cries::

Holy shit, that was for Across the Sea of Stars, at my very first Intercon, Intercon F. Man… I was complaining about casting questionnaires even then? When I had filled out, what, two of them? (And, um, sorry, Jeff D. I understand the purpose of casting questionnaires a lot better now).

Also I believe that the job interview I’m preparing for (mentioned at the end of the entry) is for the job I eventually accepted (and eventually lost) at an educational marketing company. DON’T DO IT, LISE. DON’T GO INTO THAT SCARY CAVE.

January 22, 2007. HOLY SHIT VETIVER. Ah, so this was when I was first discovering BPAL. Little did I know then how much Matt would end up liking Highwayman, and how little subsequent bottles would smell like that imp.