The red wheelbarrow sank and heaved, dipped and bucked as I wrestled it downhill. A knot of grass tugged at the wheels. As I pressed through it, I plunged into a rut, forcing me to halt, rock the wheel back and forth a bit, and stumble onward. Tripping over one last bump, I let the wheelbarrow drop, and two other interns, Breanne and Jamise, helped me pull out a dozen gooseberry plants and arrange them on the ground, where they joined dozens of other trees and shrubs. Then, we pulled the wheelbarrow back uphill and started over again, rolling out our plants beneath an orange maple and a clear sky.
On that day, a Friday, the conservation science team had come to this property to lay out over eight hundred potted plants. In lieu of an illegal clear-cutting job, a wide strip of that area was now under the permanent protection of a conservation covenant, so our job was to establish a new generation of trees, which would hopefully burgeon up, stretch, and splay out their leaves for generations to come.
My internship with A Rocha Canada has taught me a lot about the particularities of these different plants. When I looked around that day, instead of seeing an amorphous swathe of green, I was able to recognize alder, twinberry, rush, and deer fern. I’d learned to distinguish and name them, and that sort of familiarity changes everything. A salal’s vibrant, rounded leaves, a swamp gooseberry’s hide of thorns, a twinberry’s dark little fruits, these become as familiar as the face of a friend. If I can recognize them, if I can name them, then I can cultivate a deeper sense of connection.
After learning some of the names and traits attached to the plants we were lugging around, and even after forgetting a great deal of them, I was increasingly able to see each plant as a complex individual. We wheeled out some pots of red-osier dogwoods. As we set them out on the ground, they all looked pretty mundane. But they each have so much complexity, so many different aspects to what they are and what they can do! Indigenous peoples, for example, would craft the dogwood’s bark into fish traps, smoke it, or boil it for medicine, and they used its sap to poison arrowheads. And earlier that day, we had planted a species with some pretty dramatic contrasts in its personality. It’s sometimes called oceanspray, sometimes ironwood. The name oceanspray comes from its soft white flowers, which look so delicate that if a hot day came around, I’d expect the flowers to simply drip off the branches like melted sugar. The name ironwood, on the other hand, comes from the strength of its bark, which native peoples once made into arrows and harpoons.
But of course, the plants aren’t just valuable for their use to humans. While planting new trees is desperately needed for human thriving, and for the health of the earth, it wasn’t the sole reason for our project that day. I wanted to plant for the sake of the plants themselves. These were organisms that I was learning to recognize and call by name, and I wanted them to thrive.
Back home, in Nashville, I barely knew any of the plants by name. Entire species could have disappeared without my noticing it, because I hadn’t taken the time to see and recognize them. If I had attempted a restoration project back then, I probably would have been motivated by the desire to “preserve nature” or “help the environment,” which is a noble, but foggy goal. It’s hard to feel truly driven by such an abstract idea. And that’s where names make a difference. Now, my motivation is rooted in a multitude of distinct individuals. I’m planting so that the deer fern and sword fern can recline in the shade, so that the black gooseberry can polish its berries and sharpen its thorns, and so that in the springtime, the blood currant can blaze out with its arching flowers of red and pink.