Tag Archives: trees

Plus ca change

It took me forever to get out to the woods today. I missed Frances, and I missed the boyfriend. And, I came to realize, I missed my old pond, near my old house in North York. I wanted deeply to just put on my shoes and head out the door for a long walk in a natural setting without needing to drive or bike first, and I wanted to end up at a pond and putter around it for an hour or so, looking at frogs and wildflowers and herons and ducks. I wanted to sit at the bend of the Don, on the big boulders, where the current continually tosses up one perfect cowlick of froth. I wanted to hear the water thundering over the stones, and then go into the woods and stare at the trunks where generations of woodpeckers had hollowed out a dozen homes for other small creatures.

old-style sacred grove

And because I couldn’t have it, I nearly didn’t go out at all. But then forced myself into the car and down to Webster’s Falls, a favourite of mine, where you can clamber out right onto the stones where the river rushes over the edge, and it feels ludicrously dangerous and safe as houses, both at once. It was packed today. Two weddings and at least a hundred other people besides, on the waterfall, the bridge, and the trail down below. Not quite the thing when you want to sulk, you know.

The trail down to the bottom of the waterfall (packed) led to a trail beside the river (not packed); I followed it for the first time. Not quite as civilized, in the best way: no rails, no stairs, no paving. Lots of dirt. Lots of clambering over fallen trees and up or down root-stairs, on wet rocks, or through small trickling creeks. Lots of measured steps where the earth fell away on one side, and the path sloped towards it. An hour and a half or so along this river, thinking, thank god I got myself out of the house today.

new-style sacred grove

It was in every way better than the old river. Waterfalls every twenty or thirty feet. Boulders at the water’s edge one can lie on–and not gabion baskets or erosion boulders but “natural” boulders likely dragged there by glaciers millennia ago. Forests stretching away on either side up the escarpment, lovely old trees spaciously filtering the sunlight through leaves showing the first traces of fall colour. Trunks straight and slim as temple columns. And thinking, every so often as I stopped to take in the view–slopes covered with spread-out tree trunks, the light streaking in high above through the leaves, the palpable hush–that there might be something biological to the calm and reverence those views inspire.

I especially like the way the branches meet in a nicely arched canopy.

Because it’s the same view seen in temple and cathedral architecture worldwide: columns, spaces, high ceilings, filtered light. I wondered if, for thousands of years, we haven’t been building our sacred architecture as highly stylized stone forests with glass leaves.

At first I thought that must be why a walk through the woods always makes me feel better–peaceful, aware, stronger, more alive. But then I thought, no, that’s backwards.

That’s why people always feel better in churches. Because they look like forests.


Absolutely none of these photos are mine. I take no credit for them. They are lovely, though, aren’t they?

Look Small: Buds to Leaves

Have you ever noticed the way buds open, almost erupting as if in force of a slow-motion explosion?

They don’t just open. They spill. Like milk spreading across a kitchen floor, or water boiling over a pot. Like a snake shedding a too-small skin.

Most of the leaves around here are open, but a few trees remain brown and bare. Watch the buds. See if you don’t see what I mean.

These ones–I believe they are beech–I particularly love, unfolding from their buds like paper fans, their edges furry and corrugated. Look at how elegantly they were packed in and how glad they must now be to stretch, and feel the sun.

new beech leaf

Looking Small: Bark

Sometimes during winter, when the more obvious, prettier stuff falls away, you get a chance to notice and appreciate things you overlook in the summer. Like bark.

Last Sunday, Frances and I took advantage of unseasonable warmth (it’s amazing how balmy 5C can feel when you’re used to temperatures below freezing) to take a walk by a nearby, tiny, frozen-over creek down to the neighbourhood Big Park. You can’t have weather like that on a weekend afternoon in February in Toronto and not go outside. It’s illegal. I’m sure of it.

Anyway. While Frances amused herself by getting Teri, her toy pteradactyl, to peck through the ice on the creek in search of fish–and there I stood, bemusedly wondering why we think we need to teach kids to love nature–we took note as we walked of all the different kinds of bark we could see. It’s amazing. If you drew a tree, you’d probably just draw a smooth brown sheath, but when you stop and look there’s so much variety in something so simple.

Layered bark. Peeling bark. Ridged bark. Cracking bark. Smooth bark. Papery bark. Whorled bark. Don’t you wonder why? What evolutionary advantage would smooth bark impart to one tree and not to another in the same ecosystem? Or is it an accident of the way the wood grows?

Isn’t it gorgeous? Have you ever really stopped and looked at bark?

Bark protects trees. It discourages predation by herbivores, since outer bark is usually indigestible. It slows water loss, can mitigate fire damage, and insulates in colder climates (where tree barks are generally thicker). But according to this page from the University of California LA, bark is generally poorly understood. Go figure. Here you might have assumed that some scientist somewhere would have the answer to almost any question, and yet something as commonplace and ubiquitous as bark remains a mystery.

Scientists can also use bark to measure the level of some contaminants that trees have been exposed to.

One day I’ll learn how to identify trees just from looking at the bark; in the meantime, I’ll appreciate it. So much of enjoying nature in an urban or suburban context means changing the scale from the charismatic and large to the small–stopping to stare at things you’ve walked by a thousand times but never really seen.

What kinds of bark can you see in your neighbourhood?