Research can be a daunting task, no matter the subject. Whether it’s 16th century art or whitewater rafting or current political climate, every subject requires some knowledge and occasionally putting your boots on the ground to get dirty doing it. A couple years ago, an idea for a fantasy story came to me when I learned the lyrics to The Trees by Rush. (Songs can be a great source of inspiration by the way, but that’s a topic for another thread!) I jotted down some notes on the idea and filed them away for a future writing session.
The idea of being a life-long learner was instilled in me long ago. I was a terrible student in high school, so I attempt to make up for that in my adult years by taking more than a passive interest in all the things I find to be “cool”. Most recently, I enrolled in the Tennessee Naturalist program offered through our wonderful State Parks here. My intent was to learn a little more than I already do about my local natural surroundings, but there was another benefit I did not intend.
The most recent class I attended was on forestry and tree identification. The group met at the Fiery Gizzard trail head in Tracy City, Tennessee. It is a very popular hiking trail (evidenced by all the other hikers we encountered that morning) and has some beautiful scenery to take in. We met under the pavilion on the well-kept grounds of the small park and began our induction into forestry.
Our instructor for this class was a forestry professor from University of the South at Sewanee, a very knowledgeable guy that could name most every tree we passed with a quick glance. Over the entire hike, I really did learn a lot that I didn’t know. I came into this excursion with a good working knowledge of most trees and found some of the information to be gee-whiz nuggets I did not already possess. Then suddenly, we stopped to admire a very healthy stand of Reindeer Lichen and he said something that put me in book research mode.
While looking at the lichen, he asked us to look at our feet. We were standing on the trail in a large mass of twisted roots from several different species of trees that were exposed above ground. Years of hikers stepping on them had worn down the bark and left woody scars with every footfall. His next sentence was very profound. He said, “The best way we can diagnose the health and wellness of a forested area is not what is happening above the ground, but below it.” He said that recent research on some western forests in the U.S. have been able to prove that trees with these types of entangled root systems share the limited water and nutrient resources across species. He continued to tell us that younger trees are able to tap in to the older tree roots and help supplement their growth in the under canopy.
In Rush’s lyrics, The Trees tells a story through song of a short battle between the oaks and the maples for sunlight. On the surface, the lyrics seem to be giving a warning about some political strife. According to Rush’s drummer Neil Peart, he wrote the song after seeing a cartoon depicting trees acting like people with no particular message in mind other than he thought trees acting like people was interesting. Here’s the full lyrics of the song:
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas
And they’re quite convinced they’re right
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream ‘oppression!’
And the oaks, just shake their heads
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’
Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw.
It wasn’t long into this hike that I realized it was serving a dual purpose for me. Becoming a State Naturalist is a passive goal I would like to accomplish, but becoming a published author is an active, passionate goal that I work on daily. I was startled at how easily the two goals meshed into one purpose with very little effort. There are many things we all do on a daily basis that can fire up your imagination. The difficulty sometimes comes in recognizing it.
Where my thoughts finally crystallized was a stop to see a small white oak, which wasn’t quite yet a sapling, growing under a shady canopy of two red maples. It was like the song says, but in reverse. The whole time I listened to the forestry professor talk about this research of trees sharing resources, I kept playing the song over and over in my head and thinking about my original story idea when I first heard the song. By the end of the hike, I had worked out a decent plot, and idea of a few beginnings, a solid ending, and even a few of the characters, all because of these amazing trees and what is now proven to be their natural behavior. It was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable (and productive) research session I’ve ever had!
I’ve included some other photos of the beautiful scenery that day below. Enjoy!
2 thoughts on “Researching your book when you don’t realize you’re researching your book.”
That forest looks amazing. It’s definitely the type of primeval wood I picture in my head. Great inspirational photos. A similar thing happened to me. I’m reading a book about lobsters. Its pretty awesome. Now the protagonist in my next book will most likely be a lobster fisherman.
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Thanks Dan. If you ever get the chance to visit Middle Tennessee, Fiery Gizzard should definitely be on your hike list. It’s a beautiful place. Good luck on the lobsters!