...in which I explain why the sycamore is my favorite tree

by Ben Carter

Whenever people ask me, “Ben, what’s your favorite tree?”[1] I always respond without hesitation: “Sycamore.”[2] I’m not really sure why, which is, of course, why we write.

First, there’s the sound of the name. Now, we English speakers have some good-sounding tree names in our arsenal. The neighborly Maple. The broad Oak. The sturdy and trustworthy Poplar. The playful Cherry. But, sycamore? Come on. That’s the best. It begins tight and focused and then spreads out across a delta in its final syllables. Just the sound implies so much about the tree itself. More on that in a second. I am still on how good the name sounds and how much fun it is to say.

Saying “sycamore” is like speaking jazz. It’s syncopated in just the right way. I wish people would ask me what my favorite tree was more often, just so I could say “sycamore” over and over again throughout the day. It’s really my only shot at having rhythm.

And, speaking of rhythm, let’s not forget to mention that the sycamore is one of those elite tree names with three syllables. Sycamore. Sassafras.[3] Hickory. The people who named these trees recognized that they deserved the time and attention three syllables required. These trees are not so common or prosaic as to need a short, one-syllable name. You know the trees: the pine, the spruce, the ash. No, these trees, wow!, deserve three.

Writers have have scientifically and undeniably proven that things grouped in threes are inherently more awesome than groups of lesser or more items. Designers know that store displays should group items in threes whenever possible. The best gods are the ones that are three-in-one. Just like the best unalienable rights.

The three-syllabled “sycamore” is irresistible. You should just give up and start loving it now while you think it’s still your choice.

The sycamore lives next to creeks and streams. It stands next to lakes and at the edge of swamps. It is comfortable in the tight, intimate spaces of a creek bed, but is also flourishes near broad expanses of open space. It has emotional range. As its name implies, it’s flexible. It can live in the “syc”, the “a”, or the “more”.

The sycamore also pioneers in places humans have destroyed: old fields and strip mines. When humans have used up a place, moved on, sycamores are among the first trees to return and begin the long work of restoration. The sycamore is a hopeful tree.[4] It plans for generations.

I love the sycamore in part because I love the spaces it inhabits. I prefer a river bank to a mountaintop. While the expanse of a mountaintop awes, awe is not comfortable. It’s not an easy emotion. A creek bed is a good place to return to reflect on an experience of awe. And, the sycamore will be there when you get back. The walls of a creek bed insulate, comfort. They allow me to focus on what’s right in front of me because what’s right in front of me is all I can see. I can sit under a sycamore and find peace. One could do worse than be buried under a sycamore.

I love the sycamore is because it is so easy to identify. After saying such profound and scientifically-verifiable things like “the sycamore is a hopeful tree,” you’re probably thinking I’m some sort of expert on trees. The truth is I don’t know squat about trees. So, I appreciate the sycamore for being so immediately and obviously a sycamore. I love that when I’m in a canoe on a lake, I can expect to look across the water and see the white and brown mottled bark of a sycamore. I feel like I know something about the world when I’m driving down the interstate and spot a sycamore next to a passing stream, it’s white branches immediately comprehendible.

The first old-growth tree I ever saw was a sycamore. In Fall Creek Falls State Park in middle Tennessee. The walls surrounding Fall Creek were so steep, loggers could never figure out how to get the trees out, so they moved on. They left behind massive sycamores, towering hemlocks, deep shade. Old growth sycamores are other-worldly; walking the creekbeds at Fall Creek Falls is like finding yourself in the middle of a Star Wars set. Sycamores just grow to an impossible girth and overlook the rushing water with the dignity of boulders.

The sycamore’s leaves are dense, hearty. You could make a soup out of them. You could write on them, bind them up, make a book out of sycamore pages that would last a thousand years. In the fall, walk under a sycamore and you will learn that the sycamore’s leaves are substantial even in death. They are thick, tough, undeniable. They endure boots.

Everything will eventually fade, even a sycamore’s leaves, its massive, beautiful trunk, the fundamental creek. But, for a season, we can say, “Here stands a giant.”

I knew it and loved it.

  1. Because, as you know, people are always asking each other this question. Basically every day I have someone–friend or stranger–ask me about my favorite tree, or fossil, or dinosaur, or time of day or sedimentary rock. It’s like people don’t know that T.V. exists. (By the way, for “time of day” the answer is: It’s that moment, not every day, when the sun has set for so long that all color is about to fade from the sky and a faint hint of green, almost as if by mistake, appears in the sky.)

  2. Because the name “sycamore” has been used to refer to a lot of different kinds of trees over the years, I should be specific, literally, and say the species I love is platanus occidentalis.

  3. God, the sassafras really has a lot to recommend it. I would respect anyone who said their favorite tree was the sassafras. The name is great: three syllables, fun to say, cool, rock-splitting etymology. The tree is fun to identify, and you can make cool stuff from it. Like tea. And root beer.

  4. Look, I grew up on the Transcendentalists. I am not going to refrain from anthropomorhizing things and drawing spiritual analogies from nature. It’s what I do.