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Talking trees with Tina

Tina Astor teaches students across Oregon about trees from her home Zoom studio in Ashland. Denise Baratta photo
Local educator teaches about trees to kids throughout state

Growing up middle class in Northern California, Tina Astor was a happy camper. Her family didn’t have the money for big vacations; instead, they spent most of their down time with big trees – giant, 1,000-year-old sequoias in Yosemite National Park, and tall redwoods like the skyscrapers in one of her favorite places, Jedediah Smith State Park.

“My mother made sure that we knew every part of California,” Astor says.

Along the way, she couldn’t help but become well acquainted with the local flora, the fallen leaves, cones and, of course, those towering trees. Nature has always been a touchstone for the longtime educator, so when she delivers her lectures for Talk About Trees, Astor — known to children across the state as Tree Talk Tina — is speaking from the heart as well as the brain.

One of 15 teachers who are contracted out by the nonprofit forestry education program, Astor has been teaching kids about the science of trees for the past six years, the last year remotely from the comfort of her living room or front yard in Ashland, depending on the weather. Before COVID-19, Astor would travel to kindergarten through sixth-grade classrooms throughout the region to deliver her 30-minute lecture. These days, her reach has extended statewide thanks to Zoom, but her lesson is basically the same.

“We’re working on middle school curriculum right now, but I am booked solid in March, April and May,” said Astor, who has a bachelor’s in environmental studies and a master’s in education. “I go to three classrooms a day at least.”

That was the routine before the pandemic. Now, Astor, who also works as a substitute teacher, teaches about one Talk About Trees class a day on average. And like every other educator, she’s adapted her lessons to COVID-19 guidelines, namely the one that prohibits visitors on school grounds. She can’t wait for the day that changes and she can see her students in the flesh again. For the past year, her classes have lacked the senses of touch and smell.

There were kinks to work out in the early days, of course. Allowing curious kids to blurt out questions may work fine if somewhat controlled in a classroom setting, but with dozens logged in and all dealing with an audio lag, the mute button proved essential. A system was developed by which the teacher would select a student who could ask a question. Hand signals became commonplace. Raise your hand if you like Douglas fir trees.

“I took my laptop outside and just kind of rigged it all up, put my big table out there and put all my stuff on it and had everything ready to grab and show the kids,” Astor says of her early adoption of Zoom classes. “It was cool because behind me was a perfect example of the two types of trees we have here, which is broadleaf and conifer. And I had both in the background. I said, ‘Go look, you can identify them.’”

Conifers have a cone shape; broadleaf is much more rounded. Astor’s lessons cover identification, tree growth, life cycles and lumber uses. When she was in classrooms, her paper-making project was always a crowd-pleaser. For that, students tear up paper, add color, blend it all up, pat it across a screen and roll it. Twenty-four hours later, they’ve got a nice rectangular sheet of recycled paper.

On March 8, Astor brought her tree talk to a fourth-grade class in Tualatin Elementary School, just south of Portland. Students there didn’t return to schools for in-person learning until Thursday, so they could be forgiven for being a little antsy. Three classes combined to sit through Astor’s lesson – that meant 64 kids for a single session.

One of the teachers there, Michele Hole, who helped coordinate the lesson, said Tree Talk Tina had no problem holding the students’ interest during the Zoom presentation. Her kids, she said, were fascinated by the fact that, yes, there are other cones besides pinecones, such as hemlock cones and fire cones.

“She’s amazing,” Hole said of Astor. “She gave every kid who had a question the time that they needed, she was excited about their questions, they felt very appreciated. Her energy was amazing and the kids were very engaged. To have 60-some kids there looking on at the same time, they were hanging on to everything she was saying.”

Astor believes that’s because she loves kids and that comes through. And she listens, too. That’s why she’s no longer surprised when her students solve the mysteries she presents. Why are the rings on her tree cookie — a cross section of a tree trunk — so close together near the middle? Maybe, some third-grader will eventually guess, the tree was growing slowly during that time period. Bingo. And why? Drought probably.

Occasionally, often without warning, their curiosity adds to her lessons, and Astor has learned to just go with it. Sometimes, even the mute button must be muted.

“And they all say, ‘What’s this?’” Astor said. “Somebody will go running to get a cone and go, ‘Do you know what this is from?’ And sometimes where their computer’s at they’ll have a window, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, look, so-and-so has a conifer outside their window!’”

Of course, a real walk through a real park would be ideal, but Astor isn’t complaining.

“I’m so glad because having this versus nothing at all, I’m so grateful to be able to talk and see the kids and share with them how much I do love the forest and how much I want them to love the forest,” said Astor, who may also be recognizable to local sports fans as a high school volleyball referee. “And I hope and pray that they get out into the forest — go out and take a walk and go look at trees, hug a tree.”

Growing up in Santa Cruz, Astor fell in love with the outdoors during all those camping trips, and on horseback rides along the beach in Big Sur on the back of her brown thoroughbred, Mika. Nature was always going to be a major part of her life, but she gets a kick out of the fact that her job has afforded her the opportunity to pass along her love to another generation.

That job has also gained Astor a certain celebrity status in the K-6 crowd. Until about two years ago she drove an airport shuttle, and one of her favorite things was looking into the rearview mirror and seeing that moment of recognition in a child’s eyes.

And, of course, they would recognize her. It was a class that came up with her name, after all. They considered TTT, and Triple-T. Another possibility was Tree-na. But none of those had quite the same ring.

“There was nothing better,” she said, “than some kids coming in with their folks on vacation and saying, ‘Mom, mom, it’s Tree Talk Tina. Oh, my gosh, she’s right there!’”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.