Beauty of Winter Trees

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, January 25: I notice that some people seem to view winter as a time to stay indoors, resenting the cold with all its severe and delicate beauty. But many of us appreciate winter for its wild weathers, the slower pace of things, a time for good walks, for frugal art and quiet reflection. The colder months reveal a more subdued palette of colors. Now the earth is rich with shades of brown and grays, drab olive and pale straw, cinnabar and sienna, russet and stone. These days of long shadows are painted with stark tones of black and charcoal, scarlet birds and berries, and lacy evergreens, all of it contrasting with the absolute purity of white.

One of the many joys of winter is an appreciation of the beauty and variety of trees. After leaf-fall, the skeletons of trees stand against the winter sky. Stripped to the bone, the bare limbs, branches and filigree of twigs give the various tree species their graceful summer forms. We see last summer’s secret bird nests exposed, in leafless winter light.

Speaking of skeletons, the tree most bonelike in structure and color is the sycamore in winter. Its white trunk and sinuous limbs are especially dramatic, even ghostly, sprawling in gray mists along dark streams.

The staunch bulwarks of our mountain forests are the several types of oaks, spreading large limbs up and out in dome-like branching networks. Older individual oaks growing in open sunlit fields have trunks over six feet in diameter. Their canopies spread out as broad as they are tall.

On winter walks, I sometimes pause to listen to the sibilant music of cold wind stirring the furled, freeze-dried leaves of beech trees. Beeches hang on to their crisp leaves much longer than most trees. By late-winter, the leaves have been leached of most of their color. In cold rain, a beech tree can be a pale apparition, glowing in the gloomy woods.

One of our most common species, the tulip poplar, reveals its namesake even in the colder months. The higher branches lift hundreds of bright tulip-shaped woody cups remaining from last spring’s blooms.

One morning last week, as every January, a flock of chirping midwinter robins flew into our garden and woods. Along with a tightly-knit troupe of cedar waxwings, they descended upon a large holly tree. In less than a day the birds gorged themselves on the hundreds of bright red berries, leaving not one. Fat and fueled with energy for more cold weather, the robins and waxwings flew on.