Education in the Northern Mid-Latitudes



I travel to work daily through the woods.  Through one particular stretch of road I find myself reciting the preamble of Longfellow’s Evangeline, memorized in high school: 


This is the forest primeval.

The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,

Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms

Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean

Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.


I am a child of the Northern mid-latitudes.  I grew up, raised my daughter, and continue to live among the deciduous trees of the mid-latitudes—oaks, maples, elms, beech, walnut, and hickory.

The nature of the mid-latitudes is that the inclination of the earth leads to a greater range in climate from winter to summer than nearer to the equator.  Evergreens (and pinecones) dominate further to the north and year round growth to the south.  But the mid-latitudes are defined by the deciduous trees whose leaves turn brilliant colors in the autumn, and fall to the ground, leaving behind the stark shapes and textures of the tree trunks and branches.  These trees produce a seasonal abundance of seeds, feeding the animals that collect and store them for the winter, many of whom go into hibernation.  One year I had a neighbor’s one oak tree produce enough acorns to fill multiple trashcans! My daughters and I learned about oak tree cycles that year and anticipated an explosion in the squirrel population the next spring.

When I was growing up, we would bury each other in piles of leaves in the fall, or create imaginary houses, using the piles as the walls.  Eventually we would stand by as our parents burned the piles, at a time before concerns over air quality.

If you live in the Northern mid-latitudes and have children, there is a “rite of passage” which involves building a leaf collection for a school project.  Early grade school projects may require the use of acorns and other nuts from these deciduous trees for art projects, but middle school involves the dreaded leaf collection project.

The front cover of Marie’s leaf collection

My older daughter attended a special 6th grade science-enrichment school where she was required to collect leaves from a MINIMUM of 25 native tree species.Rumors of local parks where all the trees were labeled passed through the parent network, as well as tips on where to find particularly rare native tree species.  Parents who had older children were especially valuable because they had gone through this rite of passage before.  Although I would never admit it under oath, there might have been some leaf sharing among desperate working parents. I really have no idea whether my daughter learned her mid-latitude trees, but I certainly did:  Red Oak, White Oak, Pin Oak, Bur Oak, Red Maple, Norway Maple, Sugar Maple, Ash, Black Locust, Honey Locust, Black Walnut, Red Bud, White Birch, Paper Birch, Sassafras, Sweetgum, Hawthorne, Shagbark Hickory…I believe we ended up with more than 40 species of trees.

As I drive daily through the forest primeval, I personally identify the trees of the mid-latitude forest around me, bonding especially with the Shagbark Hickory. 

When my daughter returned to her regular school in 7th grade she was required to do a leaf collection…again…

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