Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tree Hugger

That thou, light winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
John Keats

I read recently that if you wrapped your arms around a tree and embraced it, you should not be surprised at all to sense within the mighty trunk a kind of pulsing, not unlike that of a heartbeat. It is in fact the life blood of the tree--its sap--rushing heartily within the towering structure, and circulating from branch to branch, and from leaf to leaf.

The term, "tree hugger," so often a pejorative, gives me pause, for otherwise, I might run out this very afternoon to see if I could in fact detect the "heartbeat" of my favorite tree.

Trees made an impression this past week. I was off from work and so had just a bit more space within my harried brain for pondering other matters. And so with the bitter cold of winter and no garden to tend to, I went for a walk in my park, Sligo Creek. Just as Emerson predicted, a "woodland walk" did prove to be a salve to my "worst wounds."

Quickly shedding office angst, the naturalist in me leaped to attention when for the first time in all the years that I have walked this same path, I suddenly noticed a separate grove of unique trees within the greater woods. In the absence of leaves in the forest canopy, their distinct smooth-skinned, gray-white bark stood out vividly in the sunlight and I saw them as if they had just sprung newly from the ground. It was an army of American Beech trees. They marched down the ridge from the apartment buildings above the stream and advanced across the creek bed before ascending the opposite ridge. (The one above, I snapped with my cell phone camera. Its branches seem to be lovingly embracing the tree alongside it, a tree hugger tree?)

Now, I must confess that when it comes to trees I am as ignorant as they come. A tree is a tree is a tree. And I have looked at them all my life without seeing any distinction. But a new friend, Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964), a naturalist and a botanist, who studied French poetry before training his attentions on American plant life, is my mentor.

A 2007 reissue of his 1948 field guide, A Natural History of North American Trees, is quickly looking careworn and well-used in my possession. Like any of my compulsions, I've made trees a hot topic around the Lieberman household, and having found an online guide to the trees of Sligo Creek Park, I've attached a mass of stickies to the pages of the Peattie guide to cross reference what is available locally with what is available within the book's pages.

The Beech Tree, which Peattie says is "all that we want a tree to be," has a vast range across North America, from Nova Scotia in the north, to Florida and Texas in the south, and west as far as Oklahoma. "The elegant clear gray of the bark extends from the trunk to the main mighty boughs, then to the hundreds of branches, and out to the thousands of branchlets. So that when the tree stands naked in winter it seems to shine through the forest almost white in contrast."

And that was what caught my attention on my winter woodland walk.

I am educating myself now on the trees and from my garden chair, I newly recognize in my view a magnificent American Beech tree in the grove behind my neighbors' houses. Almost luminescent, it stands in stark contrast to the more slender tulip poplars, and the towering oaks and the diminutive holly and pines in our neighborhood forest.

And that is the very tree that I wish to hug. Sadly, those neighbors are not my "bestest" of friends so I'm quite certain that if they caught me in flagrante dilecto with their tree they might call the police. So instead to pay homage to my new friend, I might sneak down there and slip it a small gift. I'll lay at its base a bundle of rosemary, perhaps. And then I'll give it a quick hug. The Putterer


  1. Wonderful blog, Putterer ... glad to find reference to it in our holiday mail. But do you not think that a post that recognizes the American Beech tree should recognize that the Putterer's husband's homestead, the place where he was nurtured, also bears the name of this wondrous tree? A former resident of 1185 Beech Lane thinks so ..

  2. Dear Anonymous, Aren't the synchronicities of life amusing? No wonder I like hugging that guy so much! The Putterer