The snow was high. It was at least up to my knees, and the fluffy powder fell into my boots, which were fastened with an elastic band around a button. My ankles were cold but stayed dry thanks to the old bread bags I had pulled over my feet. The bags served two purposes; to keep my feet stay dry and to help my feet slide into the tight rubber boots in the first place.
I trudged through the fresh snow, forging a path. I saw the perfect stick, sticking up out of the snow, and I wanted it. I could drag it along behind me creating stick-thin trails, or whack a snow-covered fence, or poke holes in the snow…that stick held so many possibilities!
I yanked on that stick. It didn’t budge. My efforts made me fall back on my rear end. “GINNY!” Uh-oh. My dad’s voice was not happy sounding. “Don’t pull on that stick! It’s the tamarack tree!”
The tamarack tree was smack dab in the middle of our yard. As it grew, its green branches became a perfect canopy to play under. Ladybugs crawled on its truck. In an upside-down cone shape, red fuzzy seeds grew up to the sky. In the fall, the green canopy changed to a brilliant red.
My family valued this tree, even though it is quite common in Central Illinois. It grows in large groves at the edges of farm fields, and its distinctive red berries are easy to spot. Years after moving away from our yard and our tamarack tree, I decided to write a nostalgic blog post about it. Searches for images, however, showed me a tree that was nothing like the one we had in our yard. It became clear that a tamarack tree was nothing like the short little tree that I had played underneath.
It so happened that during our family vacation that summer, we saw many of these short trees growing by Niagara Falls in New York. I took a photo, hoping to discover what these plants are called.
Just this fall, I began reading Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter Emmy. I read the following passages to her, and knew I had my answer, not through my own online searches, but in a children’s book.
The days were growing shorter and the nights were cooler. One night Jack Frost passed by, and in the morning there were bright colors here and there among the green leaves of the Big Woods. Then all the leaves stopped being green. They were yellow and scarlet and crimson and golden and brown.
Along the rail fence the sumac held up its dark red cones of berries above bright flame-colored leaves. Acorns were falling from the oaks, and Laura and Mary made little acorn cups and saucers for the playhouses. Walnuts and hickory nuts were dropping to the ground in the Big Woods, and squirrels were scampering busily everywhere, gathering their winter’s store of nuts and hiding them away in hollow trees.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods
Memories of our “tamarack tree,” or our Staghorn Sumac as I now know it to be, are so clear in my mind. Last winter a stick stuck straight up out of the snow, in front of our house. Remembering my own attempt to pull a tree out of the snow, I told my daughters not to pull on the Rose of Sharon bush I had transplanted in that spot.
“We know, Mom!” they both exclaimed.
Clearly, they have more sense than their mother.