Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Haircut Trees

Deep in the Alto Alentejo, we are finding new terminologies for unfamiliar bits of landscape. Portugal produces half of the world's cork, and this sunscorched region is covered with the squat, silvery trees from which it is taken. "The haircut trees" is Isaac's name for the trees that have recently produced a harvest, with their orange-red underbark exposed in an odd kind of nakedness. He is thinking metaphorically. He notes a new phenomenon and wants to connect it to something he understands: the shedding of an overgrown covering, as in a haircut. Our ancestors probably thought in a similar way when they first named a flame tree or a spider plant, or first employed any of the other common names that have a similarly metaphorical root. 

Today he took the metaphorical connection to another level. Lacking a name for the eucalypts that give this part of Portugal a flavour of the Australian countryside, he extended his "haircut trees" label. The only connection that I can see between a stubby cork oak and a tall, skinny gum tree is that both are commonly short of bark. The name connects with the distinctive feature—the exposure of the tree's trunk—and brings both entities into his realm of comprehension. One connection leads to another, as he continues to loop together his conceptual network. 

When he's not indulging his passion for botany, he's having a typical four-year-old's holiday: swimming in the pool and smearing himself with ice-cream. It hasn't all been hard work. 

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