Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Birch magic

It can be really hard for me to pick a favorite tree most of the year. I cherish my walks in the nearby forests, even though these days I no longer have the woods at my front door.

There are the maples, of course, especially in the fall, all gaudy and showy and blazing like torches with golds and crimsons and flaming orange as seasons change and small animals make winter preparations.
There are the oaks, gnarled and magnificent when standing alone in a field, tall and steadfast side by side in the forest, surrounded by fallen acorns and a multitude of deer footprints in the grass and dirt. I’ve come late to the realization of just how many varieties there are, some with leaves as dark shiny green as vinyl and with points sharp like holly, others with leathery red leaves, yet others with green lobes like spatulate fingers on an ogre’s hand.
And how could I not favor weeping willows, with long tendrils of slender leaves breaking the surface of a nearby pond, graceful curtains of green taking me back to my childhood walks at Chicago’s Humboldt Park lagoon and gardens with my father.
But then it turns to winter, and as I walk along snowy paths in leafless woods, it is the birch trees that take the title.

In the grey, dismal landscape, when all but the evergreens have lost their color, they stand out, tall and stark and white against the diminished forest. In spring and summer and fall, their grace is obscured by the riot of leaves and branches and flowers that make up the tapestry of the woods.
But in winter, they stand apart, and their quirky beauty is on full display.
This morning, with a winter storm bearing down later in the day, I took to the woods for a little fresh air and a change of scenery from the living room and my computer desk.
The path through the fields and into the woods was a mess of slush and ice, and I moved carefully at the pace of a toddler despite my lug-soled boots. The sky was overcast, and the forests were a drab combination of greys and browns above the watery snow. As I picked my way from one foothold to another, I wondered whether the possible inspiration or rejuvenation from such a dispiriting scene was even worth the time and effort I had spent layering up against the cold.
And then the birches made their appearance, some singly, others in groups. Sentinels of winter like tall white candles against the dark. I found myself wading into stands of broken branches and thorn bushes to look more closely at the shredded bark on their trunks.

Some looked almost feathered, like the fringe on an expensive silk scarf.
Another tree sported curls that looked like leftover ribbon from New Years Eve party favors.

And yet another showed patches of freshly peeled bark to the weather, exposing surfaces as smooth and unblemished as a new baby’s cheek. I touched its cold, smooth surface with my bare fingers, absolutely spellbound.

Eventually tiring of the precarious balancing act that simply walking around on the watery snow and ice entailed, I turned away from the woods and went slip-sliding my way back to the car and man-made warmth. As I left the trees behind, the wind picked up around me and the thought of getting indoors and warm got better and better.

But as I picked my way over puddles and slush, my creative neurons were firing again, and images and descriptions of nature were flooding my imagination. The magic of those birch trees still lingers. 

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