Two years ago, I explored a remote bog in northern Pennsylvania. It was the peak of the autumn mushroom season, but I wasn’t there to look for mushrooms. Archery season had just begun, but I wasn’t there to harvest deer either.
After a few hours of wandering through the bog, I eventually encountered the only person I’d see the entire day. His name was Bill and he was heading home for the day.
Taking one good look at Bill, I immediately knew why he was in this isolated part of Pennsylvania. He was hunting deer.
Bill, on the other hand, wasn’t too sure why I was there. He noticed that I had no hunting gear, no camouflage, no truck, and no apparent desire to look for deer.
Instead, I had a tripod, a camera, and a paper map printed off the internet.
After exchanging formalities, I explained to Bill why I was in the bog: to film and photograph balsam fir.
Bill was a lifelong woodsman. He hunted. He fished. He knew his way around the woods better than most people did. Bill spent his entire life in Pennsylvania, but he had never heard of balsam fir.
“We call them all pines,” he said as he watched me point out a few balsam fir trees.
Pines. I wasn’t too surprised to hear that response. Heck, I could even relate. Years ago, I called every conifer a “pine.” It didn’t matter if I was looking at a spruce or a fir. As long as the tree had evergreen leaves and woody cones, it was a pine.
Today, things are different. Disciplined tree study has allowed me to appreciate the beautiful differences between conifers. I now love observing the distinctive Christmas tree shapes of balsam firs. I love watching fir cones fall apart in the autumn season. I love smelling fir leaves (they smell better than any conifer I’ve ever smelled). And I love knowing that firs, despite being in the pine family, aren’t true pines. They’re firs, and thank God they are.
Noticing the distinctions between conifers is an important skill if you want to learn how to identify trees. Tree identification skills are important if you want to improve your ecological literacy.
To get you started, I created a video in which I teach you the major differences between conifers.