Exploring the Last Green Valley: Beauty found in December evergreens
“Each pine is like a great green feather stuck in the ground. Myriad white pine boughs extend themselves horizontally, one above and behind another, each bearing its burden of silvery sunlight…” — from Henry David Thoreau’s journal, Nov. 30, 1851
Today’s column is the third in a series about finding beauty in nature. My intention is to share the splendor of the natural world I encounter each month as we pass together through the four seasons of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope they help you consider what beauty in nature means to you, and I invite you to share your thoughts with me.
Is beauty only in the sight of the beholder? Or can beauty also be something that you smell – a pleasant scent that tingles the olfactory gland and draws in a fond memory? The smell of evergreen and cut conifer with sticky pitch oozing from a pine branch or a spruce stump was planted deep in my scent database as a child.
I remember one frosty December day going with my dad and two brothers to a local Christmas tree farm to cut a fresh tree for the approaching holiday. Dad selected the tree, and my oldest brother, with bow saw in hand lay on his stomach under the tree and sliced through the trunk with several quick pulls of the saw. I squatted next to him and the sharp and minty evergreen smell from the blowing sawdust floated over me.
After the tree had been set up in the house it was my job each day to crawl under the sweeping bows to fill the tree-stand reservoir with water. In the warmth of the house the smell of evergreen was sharp and invigorating and a beautiful symbol of the holiday season.
An outdoor ramble in December is when we notice again the conifers. The green and colorful fall foliage of the deciduous trees is gone with the winds of autumn, their brown remnants scattered on the forest floor. Now, it is the white pine and hemlock taking center stage in their green coats to stand out against the naked skeletons of oak, maple, hickory, birch and ash. They share the stage with a supporting cast of spruces, red and white cedar, red pine and pitch pine — though it is the lead actors of pine and hemlock that dominate our winter scene.
The white pine stands tall, erect and solid with long branches held out straight from its trunk or slightly elevated to the sun. Usually the tallest tree in the forest, it dominates hill tops and water edges. The branches are long and grow in annual tiers resembling successive platforms of a tower. This characteristic is one reason why bald eagles build their massive nests within the top sections of a pine. It is also a feature that makes for climbing a pine relatively easy.
“When I was a boy, I used to walk from tree to tree high above the forest floor, clinging to pitchy pine branches, feet on a bough like a tightrope walker.” — Andrew Vietze, “White Pine: American History and the Tree That Made a Nation.”
I too was once a climber of pine trees, though not daring enough to walk branches from tree to tree. Hidden within dark green foliage I would cling to its sturdy trunk as it swayed in a gentle breeze. Remnants of a pine climbing episode would remain with me for a day or two in the dark spots of pitch stuck to my hands and clothing.
If beauty can be found in both the sight and scent of pine trees, then so too is it revealed by the murmur of wind through its boughs. As a child high up in the canopy, the wind could be frightening. But I am no longer a climber of trees, and the sound is but a magical whisper of secrets revealed when least expected.
Joining the white pine among our most common evergreens is the majestic eastern hemlock. Its shape is similar to firs and spruces with a teepee shape perfect for shedding snow. Its topmost branches love the sun but this shade tolerant tree takes its time to get there.
“But though the Hemlock’s top may rejoice in the boldest sun and brave any storm, the tree unfailingly has its roots down in deep, cool, perpetually moist earth. And no more light and heat than a glancing sunbeam ever penetrates through the somber shade of its boughs to the forest floor. Beside shade, the Hemlock loves rocks; it likes to straddle them with its ruddy roots, to crack them with is growing, to rub its knees against a great boulder.” — Donald Culross Peattie from “A Natural History of North American Trees.”
On hot summer days a hemlock forest will be much cooler that the surrounding area. The earth beneath the trees is thick and deep with discarded needles, and the heavy, low sweeping branches shade the forest floor in cool air. In winter those same branches prevent the snow piling too deep and deer will take advantage of this and bed down for the night under the hemlocks or to gather there in numbers to wait out a storm.
On winter forest rambles I like to search beneath the hemlocks for a shallow depression in the snow where the deer had rested. I’ll look for tufts of hair clinging to the branches, another clue to their evening sojourn among the hemlocks.
December is here, and though the hills are mostly bare, it is the conifers that bring us the green we long for. Our tradition of bringing evergreen into the house around the winter solstice goes back to European pagans who decorated their homes with fir branches. Through the long winter the shades of green provide color during cold wintertime and symbolize eternal life and immortality.
I hope you’ll join me in finding beauty in each month — even during the winter months ahead. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley — our very own homegrown National Park. Together let us care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at email@example.com
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