September 1, 2021

Trees Mark The Seasons

Welcome to the first installment in a new series of posts about the many, many benefits of trees!

As a bit of background for this post, I encourage you to check out as well as that way you can follow along with me as I work my way through their lists. I will not, however, be working my way through the lists numerically, so if you have a favorite benefit that you’d like me to elaborate upon, make sure to say so in the comments, and if you’re sufficiently convincing, I’ll do yours next.

Without further ado, let’s begin with #13 from the Tree People list: Trees Mark The Seasons.

As I write this, it’s August 24th, sooo close to the formal conclusion of the summer. Now, in East Tennessee, the seasons can be fickle, with spring weather showing up unexpectedly in June and fall peeking it’s head out in July. But you can bet we have our share of hot summer days left between now and September 21st. Still, it feels like October is just around the corner, so close you can reach out and touch it.

Full disclosure, October is my favorite month. Cool, crisp, dry days with cloudless blue skies. In the morning, the dense fog socks you in so tight that the world may as well not exist beyond the tip of your dripping nose. Then there’s the nights, when the stars finally begin to return from their summer vacation and the night sky reaches out beyond the edges of the imagination! And, at last, October brings respite from the oppressive heat of the summer and welcomes back another, more sociable source of heat, the fire pit.

Maybe you don’t work and live outside like I do, and maybe these intimate experiences I’m describing aren’t as readily available to you. That’s okay, there’s sure to be one thing about the onset of fall that you can’t miss, the changing of the leaves. I’m a big believer in the value of the urban forest for so many reasons, but this unavoidable reminder of our connection to the planet and the seasons is a benefit that stands on its own. Even in the most densely urban places in America, pretty much everyone sees trees. Whether its outside your window, or the window of your car, bus, or train on your commute, urban trees provide a splash of color and organic variety.

There’s a saying you’ve likely heard, that “variety is the spice of life”. I figure trees are like spices for the eyes, and while some of us have the luxury to live among many trees or in human built environments that are organically lush and interesting, even the blandest concrete mid rises begin to look palatable with a tree on the corner.

Trees add variety, not only in the present tense, but throughout the course of the seasons.

We know the 4 seasons that we all learned in elementary school, but consider this, if you have 4 different trees, each with their own seasonal timing, then you’d have 4 distinct flowerings, 4 different shapes/shades of green of summer leaves, 4 different color palettes of fall foliage, and 4 distinct color/texture/shape combinations of bark, branch, and growth pattern visible in the leafless winter. That’s at least 16 different “flavors”. A Michelin star chef can make a world class meal with less than half that many spices. That makes trees a feast for your eyes!

In fact, 16 flavors are more than enough for folks to have favorites and even dislikes among them. I bring this up because I want to cast doubt upon the popular malignment of winter. I remember being a kid, growing up out in the country and wandering the woods of East Tennessee. In the wintertime, I always thought the trees were so dull. I thought everything was the same boring, drab color. But the older I got, and the closer I paid attention, the more I appreciated the winter woods. The first thing I learned to notice was the beautiful contrast in early winter between the freshly fallen leaves on the ground, a brightly varied mix of yellow, orange, and red, and the ghostly grey-to-black trunks of the trees. Add the garnish of a rare early winter rain, and the colors pop out even more dramatically. Then I learned to notice that with all the undergrowth taking up so much less visual space, I could see the terrain. Suddenly all the hidden folds and furrows in the land were so obvious, when just a month or two prior, that variety had been hidden by a wall of shapeless green. Makes you wonder what critters may have been hiding there watching from the cool shade as you busily hiked or worked all summer.

Perhaps you, Dear Reader, don’t have access to proper woods like what I’m describing, but you do have trees on your block. Here’s something unique you can see in wintertime. When all the leaves fall off, take a close look at the trunk and branches of the trees near your home. Look at the infinitely unique angles of the branch attachments or the patterns in the bark. --- Lay down on the ground with your head pointing toward the trunk as though you’re the spoke on a wheel and look straight up. Look at the patterns the branches impose upon the sky, nature’s abstract art, all full of erratic geometry and fractal repetition. The winter may seem cold and bleak at first glance, but with a little curiosity, you’ll find there’s life hiding under the snow.

And then there’s the spring, the obvious child, the popular kid, the one everyone can’t help but love (except those with allergies, a camp I’m fortunate not to inhabit). First, we have the flowering cherries with their waterfalls of frothy flowers and the much-maligned Bradford pears dotting the hillsides like the purest clouds descended from the heavens. And then come the magnolias, if flying saucers looked like these dinner plate sized flowers, perhaps folks wouldn’t fear them. And then the red buds with their vibrant purple blossoms, racing to catch up, and so excited to make their impact on the world that in their rush, they flower from the trunks of their trees as well as the tips. Alas, their impatience is our blessing for their beauty is multiplied. The list goes on, too long to count here. But the spring affords us another chance to connect with nature by having our very own favorite flowering tree.

Finally, we come back around to where we are now. A year older. Maybe wiser. Maybe grayer, stiffer, tired-er. Back to the hot, dirty summer full of labors for the active steward of the land. Some times, in some places, the steward might let nature run her course, but not all places, that’s where the summer’s labors come in. The summer is the time of growth and the subsequent “management-of-growth” for the harvest or other purpose. Sometimes that means watering when the sun is hot but the rain is nowhere to be found. Other times that management means pruning. After all, in East Tennessee, the summer is the time of wild growth. Some species of trees grow feet per year given the right conditions. They must have some grasses in their family tree.

Now, I wouldn’t be a proper East Tennessean if I didn’t hand you the obligatory line about crops needing rain, etc… as though I’m some sort of farmer, living off the land (hobby farming with a few grapes and chickens, as is my case, hardly counts, and if anyone is the farmer, it’s wife. She’s far more legit than me). So, forgive me for perpetuating the trope. But now that I’ve spun it, I can say there’s one key thing missing from that summer narrative above. If you’ve ever worked outside, you’ve surely already worked it out.

That’s right. Shade. Always rest in the shade, those are words to live by if I’ve ever heard them. If there’s one marker of the summer season that can’t be missed its shade. Many of us love to soak up the sun after its long sojourn away from us in winter, but I don’t care how tan you are, that sucker is hot, and shade inevitably becomes a necessity. An umbrella, or a picnic shelter may be nice, and they can get the job done in a pinch, but they’re paltry substitutes for lying in the shade, on the soft grass, being lulled to sleep by the whispering of branches in the breeze.

Of course, before you know it, those shade trees start to lose their green again, and by that point you’ve started to go looking for the warmth of the sun as it retreats to the north. And thus the cycle continues unbroken.

It’s been a bit of a journey, so let’s remind ourselves why we are here. Tree benefit #13: Trees Mark The Seasons. No matter where you live, whether it’s a forest full of towering trees, a desert scattered about with compact bushes, or an urban block with only one tree, the next time your life needs some variety, look to your trees. If you keep your eyes and your mind open, you’ll quickly see trees as a portal that connects you to the movement and change of the world around you. And if you’re like me, you’ll find that this connection opens your heart.

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