Tag Archives: trees

Forest nor the Trees

Up north, the leaves have been off the trees for weeks, helped by a heaping handful of Sandy. But, down south a couple of hundred miles, the leaves were happily attached to their mother ships, showing no sign of giving up the host, until a few days ago, when, overnight – whoompf – bare limbs and the anguished cries of leaf-rakers who’d just filled bags of the stuff, thinking that they’d have some days’ respite before the next necessary round of gathering.

Back up north, where we have a new place to call home, trees surround the house and then roll on to the distance, so that, in spring and summer, there is no horizon, only the tops of massive pines and maples and ash, and all the bushy undergrowth. All of it – the tall, the short, the great variety of green, the hard and soft and prickly, the native and the invasive – creates a kind of cocoon, or a force creeping up on what humans have carved out from it, a sure but subtle approach, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; indeed, behind every tree, within every dense brush, on every leaf-shrouded limb, creatures live, many of them, yet so few that we actually see or hear. And you can’t see neighbors’ houses, either – they’re there, somewhere, but behind and beyond, and out of mind. The foliage acts like a buffer, and a sound muffler, and it is, when you first start looking to live in these parts, exactly what your urban heart gladly surrenders to: unbridled green, like a warm mitten, granting you privacy, and ease, and basic things, even a kind of security, tenuous and fragile though it may be.

So, when the sky changes, and the wind blows cold, and the leaves start swirling down like confetti at a political convention, the newbie fears that all of nature that is good is gone, and that fall and winter will be times that are not to be loved but endured. What was green is brown and grey; one feels exposed, as if he’d walked out of a shower to discover that the walls had disappeared and an audience was enjoying the view from box seats.

Yet, that’s all wrong. This is an astounding time, perhaps even more so than when the force through the green fuse drives the flower. Thinking as I was thinking was simply getting it backwards: This is not a time when one is exposed, it is the time when the world is revealed. Where once there was a clump of green, now I see the close, middle and long-range depths of the world around me. That house I was trying to avoid seeing? It’s a lovely counterpoint to the natural world that now unfolds it to me. That ravine, that hillock – both seemed like soft cushions and springs, but are now clearly places of sharpness and mystery and secrets, not monochromatic but full of shadows and dappled areas of browns and tans and orange. Suddenly, I see something red, so red that it would seem impossible to not be a constant beacon, and yet I have no idea what that could be, because in my spring and summer days in this place it has never been visible to me. A short walk informs me that it is a canoe hanging on the side of a small shed – a canoe and a shed I didn’t know even existed.

And then – on going across the road to check the mailbox, I look back at my remarkably ungreened house, so open to the eye that it seems like a landmark, and I see, where just a few short weeks ago there was nothing but tree after tree … I see the mountains, less than a mile away, that look over (hence the name of one) and guard (hence the other) our little village. The real-estate brokers call this having “seasonal views,” and tout it as a selling point, or, rather, a buying opportunity. But it is not so crass – the surprise appearance of the rolling, sinuous and nearly feline mountains is nothing less than a gift, and a comeuppance to any who believe that this time of year is only about huddling and shelter, about losses and not gains.

Discovery is everywhere, in every place, in every direction, if only one moves with nature and time and does not cling to easy beauty, or fears sleep or death. Renewal is yet to come; epiphanies are here right now, for the taking.

 

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Tree Graveyard

Where do trees go when they die? Some just stay in place and become their own ghostly markers. Others topple over, sometimes taking along near-neighbor trees or human-made objects or structures with them. They live their lives and end their lives in the same spot, unable to move away from danger.

Two weeks ago, during the surprise of Sandy (now referred to as Superstorm), thousands of trees were lost on the East Coast. Thousands. The kinds of numbers that are all-too-familiarly reported in human casualties during wartime or plagues. Of course, trees have had their plagues, too. But in proportion to the frequent tree damage that occurs in various disease- and storm-related events throughout the seasons, this was huge in scope.

In New York City alone, roughly 10,000 trees succumbed and, also, multiple thousands were felled on Long Island. These shocking numbers were reported by state and city parks administrators. And in New Jersey, utility companies logged more than 113,000 irreparably damaged trees, many of which up until this particular storm had survived a hundred years or more of natural assaults.

I am walking through a trail on the eastern edge of the Catskills, and, let’s remember, it is two weeks after the record-shattering hurricane. It is usually a silent place, entirely wooded by white pines, oaks, birches, hemlock. There is an outdoor cathedral quality about the landscape, with the towering arboreal columns that allow sunlight to ricochet off the trunks, or to glint through the empty spaces as it would through clerestory windows above a cavernous interior space. Filtered light sprinkles through the veil of pine needles above – what is left of them, that is.

In the distance I hear the constant buzz of chain saws. I have been hearing that sound every day since the storm. Sometimes it is loud and close, now it is low and soft. Although it is somewhat like the riling sound that a fly or mosquito makes, an annoying, persistent and alarming noise. The ever-present buzz echoes off the mountains and hovers like fog over the valleys. It could be miles away but its droning is solidly felt. All around, it is the familiar sound of sadness and loss.

In this special place, a heavily wooded parcel of just under 80-acres, this municipally owned land protected by a conservation easement for the town around it, is shocking evidence of the devastation. It feels like wholesale slaughter, a massacre. Trees lying down, feet in the air. Trees splintered off twenty feet above the ground. Trees piled on top of trees, much like Pick-Up Sticks if the game were played with thousand-pound sticks. Trees that now resemble an exploded view of a tree. Many of the victims have now been cut away for the trail by those same persistent chainsaw flies. It is a heart-wrenching sight, both terrifying and mind-boggling.

Everything seems topsy turvy. Trees should not lie horizontally on the ground. Or be split and cut with their innards exposed – their dignity and life removed. Yes, some of the lucky ones still stand, the survivors who look on helplessly at their fallen fellow creatures. Trees are the very thing we need most in this climate-changed world, yet here I am, and you are, standing in a tree graveyard caused by our own selfish interests, unable to comprehend how, in the scheme of things, they are more necessary to the world’s well-being than we are. Look what we have wrought.

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Spring

It is as if you are going from a two-dimensional world into a three-, not just a changeover into Technicolor, as Dorothy did when she crash-landed in Munchkinland. Spring fleshes out our world, and it isn’t just a matter of paint, although the hues are stimulating in their own right. There are two things that happen: one is the arrival of stronger light-filled days as the sun traverses its lengthening arc, and the result is the return of shadows. Shadows always create a sense of depth and substance; “he casts a long shadow” is precisely what is happening in the landscape, filling out from its wintry flatness. The other thing that happens is, that as trees and shrubs leaf out, they create more volume instead of just line, sort of like a puffed-up blowfish in danger mode. The tree’s armature of organic lines is truly welcome in the starkness of winter, but come spring, it renders foreground, middle ground and background more fully by obscuring what’s around and behind it and, also, the distances between things.

I am watching the process in its state of becoming. The trees look like largish twigs, as they have for about five months now, then, miraculously, small protuberances begin emerging from every terminus. The Q-tip-like branches, over the course of weeks, slowly start to resemble the magician’s bouquet sprouting from his thin cane. Already in early leaf, spatially defined clusters appear, causing the eye to dart from one feathery group to another, some close, some distant and less distinct. The same thing occurs with smaller shrubs as they veil the unveiled, adding perspective and mystery to that which previously had been bare bones. All this layering creates depth.

In a woody-plants class for landscape architecture, our final project was a spring-bloom journal. The task was to watch buds daily for a month and record the changes of the shapes of the soon-to-flower plants. Not at all like watching paint dry; the buds seemed initially unchanging and then, boom, they would engorge and expand. When their protective bud skins could no longer contain them they would start to burst, tiny seams appeared at first and then, one day, a pivotal one, there was more flower than bud (and you wondered how the bud contained it all in the first place). The transformation, much like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, is amazing, transfixing. As the project was intended, it taught us about growth and change, and how every plant has its own unique pace and style. However, we never strayed from the minutia of the bud to talk about the macro of the plants changing the environment. That’s the part I like: the way these processes and their results draw our world in 3-D, creating complexity. The potential for placeness.

It is the alteration of spatial perceptions and also the formation of places, environments – maybe somewhat the same as they were last spring, but maybe not, there just might be new surprises to behold. Anyway, who can recall the fullness of the landscape after living with it for five months as mostly stick figures? This fleshing out is a friendly and welcome face. Living in an environment with less dramatic seasonal effects would seem, sadly, less stimulating. It is the spring and its magic that gets me up in the morning, that excites the senses into action: the moist fresh air with a bouquet, the umpteen shades of green and delicate pastels, the sounds of returning birds as placeness is being arranged for them, the quality of the light – plentiful and warm – and the layering of objects in space, not lined up fully visible in one glance but, rather, playing peek-a-boo with your eyes and enriching your world. It happens so gradually, you might miss it.

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