Linda Pastan, a favourite poet, invites us to consider in winter what’s vertical, particularly trees, whose structure we may notice most when they’ve shed the leaves that cloak it.
VERTICAL - by Linda Pastan Perhaps the purpose of leaves is to conceal the verticality of trees which we notice in December as if for the first time: row after row of dark forms yearning upwards. And since we will be horizontal ourselves for so long, let us now honor the gods of the vertical: stalks of wheat which to the ant must seem as high as these trees do to us, silos and telephone poles, stalagmites and skyscrapers. but most of all these winter oaks, these soft-fleshed poplars, this birch whose bark is like roughened skin against which I lean my chilled head, not ready to lie down.
They really do seem to yearn, to reach, to race skyward.
And when the time comes, they lie down.
Well, they don’t exactly lie down. David Haskell, in The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012), a book I’m reading with my permaculture group, says of trees falling:
“Tree falls start with the sound of rifle shots as wood snaps and the trunk fails. Loud hissing follows as thousands of leaves are dragged through the canopy, the sound rising as the tree accelerates. The impact of the trunk is like a huge bass drum, felt as much as heard. A wave of smell follows. Torn leaves give a sickly sweet odor that mingles with the bitter, wet smell of rent wood and bark. If the tree’s roots were levered up by an unsnapped trunk, the ground is gouged and the rootball stands up to six feet tall. The mess is impressive — smaller trees flattened, vines pulled from the canopy, twisted limbs everywhere. Once they are down, we can see what huge organisms trees are, like beached whales. … After the tree falls, light rushes in.”
And of trees fallen:
“Whatever the particularities of their histories, … fallen trees have now started the next part of their journey through the ecology of [an] old-growth forest. Fungi, salamanders, and thousands of species of invertebrates will thrive in and under the rotting trunks. At least half a tree’s contribution to the fabric of life comes after its death, so one measure of the vitality of a forest ecosystem is the density of tree carcasses. You’re in a great forest of you can’t pick a straight-line path through fallen limbs and trunks. A bare forest floor is a sign of ill health.”
Long live these vital creatures, whether vertical or horizontal. We pay respect to them when we notice them.