Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 22, 2009

liliodendron tulipifera

A lot of this business of blogging relies on memory, as does, I guess, every type of writing. Blogging is a form of memoir (when it’s not outright confessional) but I try to comment on the world in as wide a context as I can manage. As the thread that evolved about old TV theme songs demonstrates (see comments to the post, HERE), there’s a lot that depends upon what one does or does not recall, and how well one does so.

We’ve also bumped up against the memory meme in my piece on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” HERE, in which I stated that I could recall no giants in French tales. I’ve already had to print one correction, and now I must acknowledge another, even more egregrious. When I was writing that article, The Counselor herself asked me, “What about Pantagruel?” and I said, “Uh, I don’t think so.” Well, that was because I’ve never read Rabelais, and, obviously, she has. I was wrong. Not only was I wrong, but I was pretty darned convinced that I was right when I was wrong. So, yes, we add Gargantua and Pantagruel to the list of French giants. My only possible escape from this mea culpa is that I was really talking about about medieval tales, not 16th-Century ones, but I do not think that excuse will stand in any court in which The Counselor is arguing for the plaintiff.

And, after all, our memory itself is problematic. Each one of us spent a lot of time in school memorizing: the date of the Dred Scott Decision (which I’ve forgotten, along with the reason that it was so dreaded), the principal products of Peru (always say “tin:” anywhere there are mountains, there’s bound to be tin somewhere in there), and, of course, the location of the world’s deepest lake, which I do remember: Lake Baikal (Jeopardy! fans, take note. You cannot go wrong with “Lake Baikal” on questions about large bodies of water whenever you can’t think of another answer).

This short list of items demonstrates the problem: there’s no telling what really is going to stick in your head, or, if it does, what possible use it may have decades later. In fact, what we retain and what we don’t may be as good a predictor of future success as anything else, which is to say, like so much in life, everything depends on pure luck. If you happen to have remembered the right stuff, like the scoring total of Bobby Hull in the 1965 NHL season, and it comes up in a job interview or in a sudden, life-threatening emergency, you have won the long-term memory lotto and you will succeed.

Now, I went out of my way to memorize certain things, but they were not NHL scoring records. They were, mostly, poems. I was close to getting all of “The Raven” down cold, but, frankly, I got weary of all the different ways Poe brought us around to “Nevermore” again and again and again. I gave it up. My piece de resistance was “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which I found in one of my dad’s textbooks and, for some weird reason, decided I liked. I can still produce a stanza here and there but, unfortunately, no corporate officer has ever rung my phone demanding, “Quick, how does ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol start?’ The investment analysts need to know!” If that ever happens, though, I’ll be ready. However, it’s a darned depressing poem, and it doesn’t do much to boost the tone of any gathering when you start reciting it.

I’m similarly familiar with Chaucer and Shakespeare: I remember big chunks, but there’s the same lack of demand for them in the corporate communications arena. I had a boss who was big on Shakespeare, and that helped for a while, but I don’t work for him and the new guy isn’t so hot on Big Will. The Counselor is way better than I am on Shakespeare. Plus, she can remember which characters were in which plays. Not certain she ever got to use that knowledge in a courtroom,but, if she ever did, I’d pay good money to be there to watch.

And science. Ah, science. It was a dark day when I realized that there would be much, much — vastly — more accretion of detailed knowledge required to become a paleontologist than memorizing the names of the dinosaurs (which, itself, was easier then, because only thirteen dinosaurs had been discovered when I was a kid; now there are hundreds of ’em).

And then there’s botany, as in trees, flowers, plants. I can identify a fair number of trees, although moving to the western U.S. has put a hurt on the number of local trees I can identify. Mostly what they have here are trees that didn’t grow back where I was raised in the woods so I knew ev’ry tree(!), or, even more insidious, Western versions of them, like oaks with tiny, tiny leaves that don’t look like oaks at all. But, in addition to identifying and naming trees, they don’t just have the informal names we use for them. They have SCIENTIFIC names. These names make it possible to memorize those names and associate them with the correct trees so that if one is attending a botanical conference in, say, Burkina Faso, one’s fellow botanists will at least know which tree one is describing, even if the rest of  one’s address is in a language not familiar to them. Why else would you remember these scientific tree names?

OK. So, imagine, then, that there is a radical, secret organization dedicated to insisting upon the use of scientific names for trees, and their nefarious plot involves kidnapping ordinary citizens, forcing them to give the scientific name for common trees, then punishing wrong answers, releasing video of the punishment onto their Web site for a terrified world to witness, all with the intent of terrorizing students and even ordinary citizens into learning the names, in case they’re similarly apprehended.

So, of course, I’ve been kidnapped, and there I am in my dank cell, after weeks of solitary confinement, relieved only by a visit from either Lou Gosset Junior or Morgan Freeman to lift my spirits. I hear the footsteps coming down the stone passageway. They are coming. They are going to ask me The Question. What will it be? What do I remember? Acer! I remember acer! But is that a maple tree or an apple tree? Acer rubrum! I know there was an acer rubrum. Was that a red maple? Maybe it was a red oak. But, wasn’t oak, quercus? Is a red oak quercus rubrum? Oh, man! There’s about a million types of trees. I have only one chance: tulip tree. For some unknown reason, only two scientific tree names out of all the ones we learned in Mrs. Hartz’s class stick in my head: tulip tree and ginko, and I’m really not absolutely certain about ginko: is it ginko biloba or ginko bilobum? Oh, man!

The Questioners arrive. They are masked. One steps forward. “We are here to ask you to give the scientific name of the American Tulip Tree. Speak now.”

OH MAN. I’m saved. But I am cool. Knowing I’m going to skate out of here, I take my time.

“Let’s see, American Tulip Tree, also known as the yellow poplar. Umm… Oh, yes, how silly of me. Of course. Liliodendron tulipifera.”

Instead of the shocked, stunned response I expected at this incredible feat of recall, there is laughter: harsh, evil laughter. The Questioner speaks:

“Not bad, weasel. But the correct name is liriodendron tulipifera. Perhaps your textbook was written in Japan!” More evil laughter. “Prepare for your punishment. Agent Three, start the camera.”

Oh man, I could SWEAR that it was lilio– not lirio-. I’ve been walking around for forty years confident that I knew at least one scientific tree name and it’s wrong! Could Mrs. Hartz have been wong? Maybe it’s her fault!

Well, all of this is pretty silly, but we all know how common this experience is. One carries around these dribs and drabs of supposed knowledge that we are certain we know and in the right company one trots out the beginning of “Dover Beach” or the formula for hydrogen peroxide or whatever, only to find oneself corrected in front of a bunch of smirking people, who knew it all along, or pretend to have. And the biggest mistake is standing by your already-incorrect memory and INSISTING that you’re right, as with me and The Counselor. Probably best to remain silent, and grind your teeth, hoping whoever is doing all the talking will make a flub and you can correct THEM.

And, I want you to know that when I started writing this piece, I honestly, HONESTLY thought that I correctly remembered the scientific name of the tulip tree, and that it was lilio-. It was only when my fact-checking good angel suggested that I look it up that I found that I have been carrying around this little bit of wrong data for FORTY YEARS. Exactly my point in telling the story, but I thought I at least held the exception that would prove the rule.

Hony soyt quy mal sy pense (evil be to him who thinks evil).

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. you know? somewhere in there i forgot what you were on about.

    by the way, down in the small berg where i grew up, 5 hours south of here but still not california,
    where the palm trees meet the pines, home of the oldest shakespearian festival in the western hemisphere, we refer to the bard of avon simply
    as “big bill”, in deference to what restaurant diners and play goers will or have paid.

    by the way the way, as you may recall from our little trek out the gorge, i usually refer to trees by their first names. “oh, that’s phil. he’s some sort of pine.”


  2. You have done it once again. Superb article.


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