Several years ago, when granddaughter was still of an age that she enjoyed going hiking with her Grampa, she came back one day to sort of complain that Papa John had spent a lot of time talking about how the trees had leaves of different sizes and shapes.

Some of it must have stuck with her, though, because she has traded the old guy for a Chosen One more her age, and together they enjoy hiking the woods and trails of northern Maryland and nearby Pennsylvania.

Nowadays, I still spend lots of time among the flora and fauna of the creeks and mountains near my home, though not often enough accompanied by someone younger who “gets it.” I often think, when I’m out wandering, of the forest artistry we shared, and how I’d love to float through the trees eavesdropping when she takes her youngster into the forest.

Shagbark Hickory leaf pod opening
Shagbark Hickory bloom opens to reveal this years leaves.

It occurs to me we would live a mighty poor life without the variety of shapes, sizes and colors  of the leaves and the critters who live with us among them. Slowly, I have begun to attach some of the names I’ve heard to the beings they describe. Two days ago, I learned the cool leaf pods I’ve wondered about belong to a Shagbark Hickory. It was cool to discover the name of the pods I’d been watching reveal the leaves taking shape within.

What if all the leaves were the same size and shape? Surely the Grand Decorator could have saved a ton of effort in placing the order for materials. But it would be like racing across the Interstate highway where the world in front is a constant shade of black.

And what if all the birds were the same color?

I was practicing with my camera this week, trying for various effects as I shot birds around our backyard. I took a few of House Sparrows — because they’re so darned common and otherwise bothersome.

White-throated Sparrow
A White-throated Sparrow forages among the grass.

As I scrolled through the frames, I discovered a bird I’d never seen. Through the camera viewfinder, it had looked like just another House Sparrow, but I noticed white stripes along either side of the top of its head. As I looked closer, I discovered the leading ends of the white stripe were not white; they were yellow.

It turned out I’d discovered a White-throated Sparrow foraging in the grass!

Beneath the cherry tree lies a circular pink blanket of blossoms, their biological purpose completed. Remaining on the tree are the cherries, small black orbs on the way to becoming dinner for someone. If the birds leave any to become ripe, I may try some, though I don’t hold much hope. The tree is humanly labeled as “decorative.”

I watch a bluebird disappear into the forest; loser of the competition for the bluebird house near my window. I’ve noticed he seems to have a favorite spot where he exits and reenters the forest. I stroll by often, but I draw the line at pawing my way into the puckerbrush, disturbing the nest I’m sure is there, somewhere.

Names of species have been unnecessary, though I have often noticed individual traits, the way we might notice the way a certain human renders a distinctive laugh or a certain way she walks along a sidewalk.

But I cannot remember a time when I did not marvel at the variety of beings who share our world, making it a much less boring place to be.

©2023 John Messeder. John is an award-winning environment columnist and social anthropologist, and lives in Gettysburg, PA. He may be contacted at