In Chris Schwarz Blog, Personal Favorites, Raw Materials

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Sometimes I wonder if morticians can tell a lot about a person’s character by the body left on the slab. Do fine lines around the mouth indicate an easygoing person who always smiled perhaps?

I ask this because woodworkers , myself included , know a lot more about trees when they are dead, dried and cut to ribbons than they know about trees when they are living. We can tell the difference between soft maple and hard maple the instant we put it to the tools. But most woodworkers are hard-pressed to identify a species in the wild.

We know little about how the species grow. Or where they grow. Or what their leaves or fruit looks like.

I’ve always wanted to be able to identify species around the neighborhood, and I used to carry around a book that showed each species’ canopy, leaves and fruit. I can pick out the obvious ones (silver maples, sycamores, willows and the like). But on others I am hopeless.

Today my friend John Hoffman and I were loading up several hundred pounds of concrete pavers for my mom (and 20 bags of mulch). As we were snaking the pickup truck down a steep hill in the yard, Hoffman looked up and said, “White oak. Round like the white man’s bullets.”


“And there. Pointed like the red man’s arrows,” he said. “Red oak.” I stopped the truck mid-hill and asked what he was jabbering about. It turns out that Hoffman’s wife, Sharon, has been taking classes on naturalism given by the state of Indiana and was taught that little trick about differentiating the oaks. The white oaks have rounded lobes on the leaves, like a bullet. The red oaks have pointed lobes, like an arrowhead. Brilliant.

So this afternoon I took a walk into a forest preserve next to my mother’s property. This stretch of untouched land was always off-limits to us as kids, but recently it was opened to the public with a hiking trail. There’s an imposing sign on the property next to the preserve that reads: Lord Lanto. Plus a bunch of signs about trespassing and security cameras. I’ve always wondered about Lord Lanto and thought I might be able to catch a glimpse of his land (or perhaps the lord) at long last by taking a walk through the preserve.

No luck. No Lord Lanto. But I did find some nice white oak and red oak leaves. But still I struggled with the other species. I think I saw some walnut. If I could get a saw and kill the sucker I could tell you for sure.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 5 comments
  • Gye Greene

    LOL! Great closing line ("If I could get a saw and kill the sucker I could tell you for sure.")

    I wonder if "recognizing it while dead, but not alive" is shared by butchers: able to tell the meat of different cattle and fowl — but know little or nothing about their care or upkeep.

    –Gye Greene

  • Keith Mealy

    When I went to "forestry camp" (back in the age of stone axes), we learned tree identification from

    If you can make simple yes/no decisions, you can determine most trees in the wild from their leaves.

    At may last home I had about 15 mature walnut trees. They were always the last to leaf out and the first to drop leaves. In between, they dropped catkins, then nuts. No wonder they grow so slowly.

  • Curt Seeliger

    Hey Chris,

    Neat mnemonic, though it doesn’t account for live oaks. When you find yourself repairing a seat, a bit or two of school yard doggerel might serve in a similar manner:

    1) Sedges have edges, and rushes are round,
    and grasses are often hollow I’ve found.

    2) Sedges have edges, rushes are round,
    and grasses, like asses, have holes.

    There are, of course, other variations. I’m working on one that starts "Carex have perigyna…", but then I get lost. I’ll let you know if I get anywhere with it.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    Glad you like that book. It is one of my all-time favorite books. I can pick it up, read one chapter and just get lost.


  • dave brown

    Thanks for recommending Oak: The Frame of Civilization. I’m about half way through it and really enjoying it.

    I’ve always loved oaks and now I know why.



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