I don’t know when I first began to really know trees. As a youngster, I was literally a snake-in-my-pocket sort of kid. Yeah, could not get enough snakes in my life. I was blooming as a broader young naturalist in my later elementary years, and I do remember leading a walk for a small group of people on some open land near where I grew up north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On that walk I remember being asked the identity of a smooth, light grey barked tree in the forest. I didn’t know the answer, but I told them it was paper birch. But in fact it was American beech. Occasionally you have to watch out for what naturalists are telling you, as they will make up facts to make for a good hike. I continue to apologize to American beech trees to this day.
By the time I was a high school freshman it was clear that I was falling in love. My new love was especially beautiful in spring and fall. A member of rich, moist, climax forests and just rare enough in my life that I would often be scanning the landscape for her whenever I was out. And, my love was the sweetest. That is probably what really clinched our relationship; for my love was the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Still inexperienced, but sincere, I consummated our relationship late in the winter of my fifteenth year when I taught myself how to make maple syrup. Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Maple Sugar Book was my mentor. Unfortunately, I never got to meet them.
Meanwhile, I was growing as a naturalist, and frankly, crazy about doing so. A biology teacher, Beulah A. Frey took me under her wing and to a special place; a place where my love would profoundly blossom. It was Todd Sanctuary; land protected by the Audubon Society. I fell in love with the wild stream valleys and forests. My first love was there, tucked away in cool and not-too-acidic soils. Then, dumbstruck, I was hired to conduct research and lead Nature walks in this forest sanctuary while I was in college. There was a crude cabin there, where I lived. For me, it was heaven on Earth.
[April brings the soft yellow haze of sugar maple flowers in the valleys.]
On an early June day I went to meet the group that had come for the scheduled nature hike that I would lead. I remember immediately being drawn to a young woman with a strikingly sincere face and a long braid of hair down her back. Terry and I met that day and she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to share about the forest. She was a farm girl at heart, but interested in what was all around, and I could again sense some sweetness in her.
Some months later I traveled to the small valley where she was living; a tributary of Buffalo Creek. I reintroduced myself and wondered aloud if she had ever considered tapping the sugar maple trees in her valley and making maple syrup. In what is now a classic family quote she said:
I would tap those trees and make syrup, if I only knew how to identify a sugar maple.
But my god, that was one of my specialties and we joined forces to produce maple syrup, a garden, and take lots of nature hikes. She taught me how to milk her cows and we continued to be in awe of the sugar maple whenever it was in bloom, in golden autumn splendor and certainly when the sap was running. It was a courtship triad of sorts.
[Tending to the homemade sap evaporator. Terry Horigan and Charles Bier, 1978, educational program at the Audubon Society's Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve.]
After our third mapling season together it was time for expression. I had recently bought myself a Guild guitar, largely made out of – you guessed it – sugar maple wood. A song came to me on those strings and included in the lyrics:
There’s a hemlock-maple valley up by the big Buffalo
And the farmer woman holding out there touches life with eyes that glow.…
I have the valley maples to bleed sweet for her, come the early spring
There’s little I’d rather do than sleep in peace with her, my winter warmth to bring
Terry and I were married in January 1981 and continued mapling together for many years to come as we started a family and established a homestead on nearby land where maples also grow.
Epilogue: Terry passed away in the winter of 2009. The following spring a memorial sugar maple tree (photo below) was planted in Terry's memory at her church, 1.5 miles north of the homestead. The church had a small sign made that hangs on Terry's tree and includes the lyrics to "Terry's Song" quoted above.
Charles W. Bier is a conservation biologist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and is still wandering the hemlock-maple valleys on long hikes with memories of Terry. Sometimes on these hikes Charles is joined by his granddog, one of his two children, or occasionally a Pileated Woodpecker.