While the Key Peninsula’s hillsides collapse under rain that reveals how we’re all just sitting on a mass of mud, on certain shorelines and exposed slopes grow trees that stand out no matter how deep the mist and murk become — madronas.
I often visit a particular madrona that spreads prominently in a patch of sky left by logging. Its orange body stretches and turns, solid as a metal stake, and I can see why indigenous communities tell a story about how during the great flood, when every other tree went underwater, the madrona stood strong. The people tied their canoes to it and were saved.
I’ve been visiting this tree for years and this winter it has new significance, for in November my wife and I named our first child George Madrone.
Madrone, like a madrona tree? we are asked.
Yes, we explain. In California and in most field guides, the tree is known as a Pacific madrone. The “a” at the end is an appendage attached only in the Pacific Northwest. The madrone-madrona divide seems to be somewhere around the Siskiyou Mountains.
We chose Madrone over Madrona for a reason no more fancy than we like the sound of it better for a name. And we did not choose it to tap into any particular trait of the tree; not because it is colorful or evergreen or strong. We simply like being around madronas. We like the curling bark they shed. We like the red berries in fall. We have been around many madronas in many seasons of our lives and still they captivate us.
As George R. Stewart wrote, methods of name-choosing reveal a lot — especially in a nation where names are used so often as brands of ownership. Part of me squirmed at having to choose a name at all. So many place names here have been erased and replaced in the struggle to assert control.
Still, the methods themselves are fascinating. There are purely descriptive names, as in western redcedar and Rocky Bay. There are honorific names, as in Douglas fir and Filucy Bay. There are twistings and turnings as one language attempts to translate and spell another, as in Wauna. There are sylvan names like Glencove, hopeful names like Home, and — strangely often — names lifted straight from the home of the namer, unchanged.
My great-grandfather named his Key Center farm Silverbow because he was born in Silverbow County, Montana. The madrona was given its name by Spanish explorers who recognized its similarity to a tree called madroño that grows around the Mediterranean.
Reusing names from a known landscape, names that have already been signposts of life and relationship, can be tremendously comforting in the face of the unknown, be it a distant country or the future awaiting a child. Both of my grandfathers are named George.
A good name exists in the same realm as my love for madronas, beyond straight logic, beyond a single intention, able to echo with many meanings over the decades. Language is an imperfect system, and in its imperfections we are given novel ways to relate.
Today the madrona’s carrot-colored skin sheds water in translucent sheets. Its leaves shiver. I remember an ice storm in which I found the massive kinked limb of a madrona lying on the forest floor, completely encased in ice. Its bright skin was magnified, amplified by the ice. An envelope of ice held every green leaf.
That such a tree, which would look at home on an African savannah, should be our only evergreen broadleaf is impressive. Dark wet winters are not enough to convince it to shut down its circulation and drop its leaves.
In fact, it’s impressive how green our entire forest is at this time of year. Other forests at this latitude are brown sticks in styrofoam snow. This January I went walking with a painter friend from Los Angeles, and as she marveled at the forest she told me that green is the most difficult color to paint, for humans have adapted to notice very subtle differences in its tones.
Here among the salal, ferns and young firs that surround this madrona and its foolhardy leaves, I’d be hard-pressed to describe what makes one green different from the next, much less invent names for all the green paints that would be needed to do justice to the forest, even in winter — but I like it. I like all of it, all of the greens beyond words. Words, names and meanings need not be perfect. Intuition can be more accurate than logic, and enjoyment is not something a naturalist must shun as too unscientific. It can be enough to tie our canoes to a tree we find beautiful.
Chris Rurik is a writer, naturalist, historian and new father who lives in Lakebay.
The Colorful Madrona Tree
Pacific Madrone / Madrona
Species: Arbutus menziesii
Family: Ericaceae (heath or heather)
Identification: One of our most recognizable trees, with bark peeling in paper-like sheets to reveal bright orange, green and mahogany skin. Thick oval leaves are dark glossy green. Trunks twist and bend toward sunlight. In spring, flowers grow in fragrant white clusters. Old leaves fall in midsummer. Red berries appear in fall.
Habitat: Dry soil with lots of sun exposure. Range runs from California’s chaparral to British Columbia’s humid coastal forest. Trees damaged by fire or axe can re-sprout from stump.
Wildlife: Many birds eat the berries, including the cedar waxwing, band-tailed pigeon, varied thrush and the American robin. Cavity-nesting birds use the dead branches.
Human Uses: Indigenous people made cider from madrona berries and infusions from its leaves and bark for gastrointestinal complaints. The dense, heavy wood often cracks as it dries, making it difficult to use in woodworking. As firewood, it burns long and hot and leaves little ash.