December 20, 2006
It annoyed me when a friend recently expressed disbelief at the thought of me brandishing a chainsaw.
The occasion was my retelling of how I brought down a tree for our living room.
"You cut it down?" she asked incredulously.
"Of course," I said. "It took five minutes. I used my chainsaw."
She turned pale, then laughed heartily.
The implication, of course, was a wuss like me couldn't possibly be capable of using a chainsaw, let alone owning one. I thought that kind of insult would end when I bought my pick-up truck, but the stereotype of me as a cowardly writer adverse to hard work and manly chores somehow persists.
"Why are you laughing? I went up to Maine, picked out a nice White Pine, brought her down, threw her in the back of the truck, and now it's in my living room. You should smell it . . . mmmmmmmm! Nothing like fresh pine. Come on over and see for yourself."
I neglected to mention, so it went unsaid, but had a bear wandered onto the scene when I was taking the tree down, I would have killed it and thrown the carcass in the back with the tree.
That's what men do.
"She's a gorgeous one, isn't she?" I asked my wife when she came home.
"How do you know it's a female?" she asked.
That question, however inane, brought to mind the years-long debate between Russell Drumm, a fellow writer, and our editor, Helen Rattray, when we worked at The East Hampton Star. Drumm, who fancied himself a sailor, used to constantly write about all things water-related, and stubbornly referred to boats as feminine objects. He would invariably write stuff like, "She listed lazily in the setting sun, her proud stern protruding like a waiting buttocks . . ." It would turn up in the paper as "The boat listed lazily, its proud stern . . ."
Helen would constantly complain about the need to correct Drumm over and over, year after year. "Why does he insist on giving an inanimate object like a boat a sex?" she would ask aloud.
"Why does he always write about protruding buttocks?" I would wonder.
But I digress.
As always, I tried to bluff my way through Karen's question. "Look at the needles," I said knowingly. "On male trees, they are narrower and longer. Female pine needles are shorter and more clustered. This is obviously a female White Pine."
"I have never met a person in my life who is more full of crap than you," Karen replied.
Her stinging rebuke sent me reeling to Wordreference.com, a website devoted to writers, who, like myself, want to make sure every word that comes out of our pen is perfectly formulated to achieve the maximum affect (note to Drumm: write that down).
Though I could find no definitive answer about trees, I did come across this exchange:
Q: I have problem. Could you please tell me if animals, pets, are treated as "she" or "he"? I know that cats and dogs are, but what happens if I have a hamster or a bird, snake, or something more unusual such as a pig, fox, and I consider him / her a part of my family? Shall I say, "he is very nice" referring to a hamster or a snake or a fox??? Thanks a lot!!!
A: Never use "it" when talking about an animal if you attach any meaning at all to the damn thing. We also have gender-specific names for most animals, and in my opinion a lot more attention needs to be paid to using them. The same principles apply to other animals — especially, and emphatically, pets. I don't care if we're talking about iguanas, if you know the gender of your egg-laying reptile pet, you'll never go (grammatically or idiomatically) wrong referring to her as she. By the way, since you mention foxes, we call the females vixens.
LOW TIDINGS QUIZ: Do you know what a male fox is called? (Answer below.)
I pressed on with my research. Hours later, I had found what I was looking for:
Q: How can I distinguish between female and male trees? Do all common trees have male and female counterparts?
A: Some familiar kinds do have separate "male" and "female" plants [the botanical word for this is "dioecious"], but most don't. You can tell pretty easily — do some trees produce all the pollen, and other trees produce all the seeds [fruits or seed cones]? Some dioecious examples: Ginkgo; red cedar [Juniperus]; date palms [Phoenix]; wax myrtles [Myrica]; poplars [Populus]; hollies [Ilex]; all cycads; marijuana [Cannabis]; etc . . .
"Holy shit they make Pot Trees!!!" I screamed happily, jumping around like I had found Nirvana. After my medication kicked in and I calmed down I continued my research, still unsure whether a pine tree could or couldn't be a "she."
I discovered that at Duke University a recent discussion entitled (I'm not making this up) "Sex and the Single Pine Tree" focused on the "unusual reproductive characteristics in modern conifers." (I can only hope the characteristics don't include protruding buttocks.) The lecture promised to "change the way you look at pine trees" (as if people spend a lot of time gazing upon them to begin with).
That knowledge in hand, I returned to the living room and announced to Karen that the tree was in fact a "she," because though she had unusual reproductive characteristics, she had them. End of story.
Well, not quite.
I had forgotten all about the damn tree until my friend dropped by last night. You see, the truth is we have a fake tree, though it is white and it does smell like pine (after I spray the pine scent on it). I keep it in the basement and bring it — I mean her — upstairs every year the weekend after Thanksgiving.
"You lied about cutting a tree down, didn't you?" my friend demanded angrily. "The whole thing is a lie. And you don't have a chainsaw, do you?"
I just stared at the ground. The two of them, Karen and our friend, just looked at me with disgust.
"Her name is Francis," I said sheepishly.
Quiz Answer: A male fox is referred to as a "Drumm." OK, I made that up. A male fox is a dog (strange but true).