Best Of 2011, Guest Editors: Over The Rhine On Trees

As 2011 comes to an end, we are taking a look back at some of our favorite posts of the year by our guest editors.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Over The Rhine issued its debut album. The Ohio-based husband-and-wife duo of multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have marked the anniversary with new album The Long Surrender, which was produced by Joe Henry at his Garfield House home studio and features an assortment of musicians handpicked for the project by Henry, including Lucinda Williams. Though Detweiler and Bergquist had never worked with Henry or his assembled backing band before, The Long Surrender was finished in less than a week. The fan-funded, 13-track album was just released via OTR’s Great Speckled Dog Records, which the duo named after Elroy, their much-loved Great Dane who passed away last year. Detweiler and Bergquist will also be guest editing all week. Read our brand new Q&A with Detweiler.

Linford: Karin and I were walking in our old Cincinnati neighborhood one time with my father, when he took a few steps off the beaten path and leaned on a towering tree. “My favorite,” he said. “The sweetgum.” Before that moment, it had never once occurred to me that I should have a favorite tree. A few years ago, when my father passed away unexpectedly (he had taken a bike ride earlier that March morning and ordered seeds for the spring garden he would not live to plant), my family called upon me to write my father’s obituary. I found myself unable to keep it a secret that he had all his life loved deciduous trees and would often find an excuse to quietly disappear for a walk in the woods, especially in the fall. I insisted that the few pale newsprint paragraphs I wrote made note of that particular fact of his life. After we buried my father, I decided I needed to teach myself the names of the trees here in Ohio. My father was no longer around to do the naming for me.

And so I began, with a few field guides in hand. I learned that the towering maple trees in the back yard of the little southern Ohio farm on the fringe that Karin and I call home are actually red maples, so-called because their bright red buds in the springtime are among the earliest to bloom. Our neighbors on the other hand have silver maples, and sure enough if I walk down toward the creek, there are the sugar maples—the tree with the classic maple-leaf shape as found on the Canadian flag—responsible for pure maple syrup. Our particular locust trees that bloom profusely in the spring, covering themselves with white blossoms intent on perfuming the world, are black locusts, different from the honey locusts down the road with their extravagant thorns. Our cherry trees are wild black cherry, different from their cousins, the chokecherry. We have sassafrass and elderberry and a lone tupelo on our property. A persimmon, some staghorn sumac, a few American elms, some ash, some poplar and pin oak. We have white pines, Norway spruce, a lone Canadian hemlock. And we have some red cedar junipers that pop up from time to time unannounced in this part of Ohio and further south along the roads through Kentucky.

It’s a curious thing for me to be able to go on tour now with Over the Rhine, arrive at a college campus in North Carolina or have occasion to walk through Ann Arbor, Mich., or Northampton, Mass., and silently address the trees by name. Somehow it connects me to home, somehow it grounds me and helps me breathe a little more deeply. Before I took the time to educate myself, if I walked in the woods, it could certainly be a nice change of pace. But now I realize that not knowing the names of the trees made it akin to visiting a beautiful library not knowing how to read. It’s good to be connected to the earth, especially when you begin laying your loved ones to rest in it.

And once you can call the trees by name, you’ll soon find yourself needing to know the names of the birds you find singing there, and then soon you’ll be noticing the night sky, and then you’ll wonder when the date of the next full moon rise is, and then pretty soon you’ll be wanting to plant something in the ground, maybe even a tree. It’s all connected. In a culture obsessed with instant everything, if you want to slow the whole world down and begin to awaken something timeless: Plant a tree and watch it grow. The earth will still be here long after we’re gone. Might as well get to know it a little before we go.

It’s easy to determine the date and time of the next full moon rise. Go here, click on ‘Moon,’ and enter your zipcode. It’s a truly amazing moment to sit with another human being and watch the full moon come up. Everything ends.

Video after the jump.

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