Our Lady of the Trees

Rebecca Priddy Photo by Renato Rotolo

Rebecca Priddy
Photo by Renato Rotolo

Rebecca Priddy isn’t the Lorax, but the Lorax is her mentor. “I’m his niece, maybe,” she muses.

Priddy has just returned from the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference, where she spent the weekend teaching and learning. She’s sitting outside of a West Asheville coffee shop, under a tree she’s identified as a sugar maple. With her naturalist journal spread out on the picnic table, she flips through its pages describing the difference between Southern Appalachia’s three kinds of maple trees, pointing to sketches and dried leaves.

“There’s a story behind every single tree, and I’m a storyteller,” Priddy explains. The sugar maple’s bark has a black cast, and its leaves turn yellow, she says. Red maples have red stems, and its leaves turn red. Silver maple leaves simply turn brown.

Three years ago, Priddy decided to take a class at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, a nonprofit environmental education center inside the national park. A chemist by trade, she worked full-time in an FDA laboratory in Marion, and at the time, didn’t know a thing about trees.

“They said to pick one thing you really love and really want to learn about,” she says. “I wanted to walk down the street and know the trees, and call them by name.”

Priddy set about to learn the looks, seeds, bark, fruits, flowers, buds and leaves of all the trees in Southern Appalachia, which has a forest ecosystem more diverse than most of the world. A European country might have 20 species in the entire country, she says.

“The glacier melt brought all these seeds down, and they left them behind when they retreated,” she explains.

She earned her certification as a Southern Appalachian Naturalist from the institute. And then she set about on an ambitious project: To document one tree from all 93 species, during each of the four seasons. She would visit each tree, photograph them, sketch some of them, collect leaves and learn how each tree changed during each time of year. She didn’t know how to draw, either, but got help from her artist daughter, designer R. Brooke Priddy of Ship to Shore Clothier.

But before Priddy could document them, she had to find them.

She began with the box elder. Not knowing where to locate a box elder, she called Jay Kranyik, a naturalist who manages the Botanical Gardens of Asheville, a nonprofit that hosts some 600 species of native plants. Kranyik helped her find that box elder and a host of others, she says. Priddy estimates she found 60 percent of the trees within the Botanical Gardens, where she now teaches tree journaling classes.

But for as many trees as the Botanical Gardens held, she still had to travel to the Blue Ridge Parkway to complete her documentation. In winter, when the Parkway closes for months at a time, that made it hard to visit her higher-elevation species.

“It took three whole years to actually see all of them in all four seasons,” she says. The results of that project can be viewed on her beautiful website, ayearwiththetrees.blogspot.com.

Priddy’s mission is education and conservation. “I want to do this to teach respect for all life,” she says. “Air, water and soil are dependent on the trees.” She cites their herbal and medicinal aspects, the homes they provide for wildlife and their beauty and benevolence as reasons to learn more about trees.

And there are always the surprises that come with learning something new.

“Now I’m totally in love with bark,” she says with a smile. “I see a tree with no leaves and now I can see how every bark is different.”

Her upcoming projects include making a bark collage from 93 close-up photographs, a tool she’ll take to the various nature centers in the region when she teaches. And along with the journaling classes she teaches now, she plans to team up with her husband, photographer Robert Priddy, to offer photo-naturalist classes. Robert, who has been part of her tree-finding journey since the beginning, will teach photography, and Rebecca will educate the students about the subjects they are documenting. “That way they can take the photos, and they’ll know what they are,” she says.

Along with that, she’s involved in the Asheville Tree Map, an online project that’s mapping all the trees in the city. It lists the most popular species, keeps tabs on what’s happening to different trees and allows users to add the trees on their property to the record.

Priddy earned her North Carolina environmental educator certification in 2012, and as with all good stewardship efforts, she wants to spread the word.

“There’s a whole calendar of classes you can take,” she says. “I took classes on trees, flowers, birds, rocks…they’re all over the state,” Priddy says. “You can learn so much, and I want all the people to learn about these things.”

For details visit ayearwiththetrees.blogspot.com.

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