ESSAY

Winter is a perfect time to look at trees with fresh eyes

The Washington PostJanuary 18, 2013 

In its leafless winter state, a tree can be a thing of surpassing splendor.

CHARLES BERTRAM — Lexington Herald-Leader

The separation of art and science is a human construct that allows us to try to comprehend the complexity of our world. A big part of the joy of the garden, though, is the idea that these two disparate fields join together.

The scientist in us gives our plants sunlight, soil, moisture and nutrients; the artist seeks to arrange them in creative combinations of form and color. Often, they display their beauty without much help from us.

Nowhere is this better observed than in a tree. Even — especially — in its leafless winter state, a tree can be a thing of surpassing splendor. But its beauty is the outward manifestation of a biological need to support its great mass, reach up and out, and unfurl the solar energy panels we call leaves.

If you delve into the scientific processes that are going on, you'll find phenomena that are mind-boggling. In his recent book The Life of a Leaf, biologist Steven Vogel cogently observes that, at its core, "science is not the facts but a way of thinking; not a body of knowledge but a way of knowing; a particular and peculiar way of looking at the world." This is how we get our heads around the idea of photosynthesis, in which the leaf uses carbon dioxide in the air and the sun's energy to make food and gives us back vital oxygen. Sun rays morph into chemicals in a reality that is stranger than alchemy.

And think about a tree's vascular system. For a century or two, a white oak can transport sugars 80 feet down into the roots and water 80 feet up into the atmosphere, all without a pump, a battery, a microchip or a service contract.

Its root system is its own enigmatic biosphere, harboring fungi, bacteria and other microscopic organisms in a universe we have only glimpsed.

For all its aboveground presence, a tree can get forgotten in its hibernation. Writing in the 1940s, Rutherford Platt recalls the scene at Gramercy Park in New York, lush and leafy in high summer. "I have never seen anybody look at the trees in winter; they receive no more attention than black dead sticks," he wrote in his biology classic This Green World.

One way to notice a tree is to take a picture of it. The act of photographing focuses more than just the camera; it sharpens our minds and forces us to see trees and the space they inhabit. Today, most of us carry cameras with us all the time, in the form of a smartphone. Find a tree, take a snap, send it to a friend.

An old-fashioned viewfinder might make us see even more clearly, but in his new book, Photographing Trees, Edward Parker says it's about the craft, not the tool.

He doesn't address cellphone cameras, but he writes that even with cheap, compact digital cameras, striking images are possible.

In photos and words, he explores the technical aspects of using a camera (another convergence of science and art), but it is his advice on composition that I find most helpful.

The principle is old but worth repeating: Divide your photo into imaginary thirds vertically and horizontally, and order your horizon and your subject along those lines. On some cameras, you can even activate a function that superimposes a grid over the viewfinder.

Parker also offers this great advice: Go to a gallery and look at art photography to see how the rule of thirds has been employed by masters including Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Like the gardener, the photographer is a technician in search of drama. And sometimes you don't have to look far.

I was in England last month during a period of fog. As the temperature dropped below freezing, the fog droplets attached themselves to available surfaces in the form of encrusted white crystals. The effect of this freezing fog was to frost whole woodlands, hedgerows and fields. The branches were rimed with an icing, and the sheer magnitude of this display was breathtaking. Rows of trees were frosted for as far as I could see, and because the solstice sun was so low and feeble, the ice and its effect persisted through the day.

Unlike the ice storms that are more common here, and that have their own beauty, this coating is too light to damage branches. The trees eventually shed the dusting with a whoosh rather than a crack. Add the warble of various hardy songbirds, and you get an exquisite winter moment.

So in the new year, I venture out to look at trees mindful that in spite of January's chill, they are only a few weeks from bursting forth again. We tend to get carried away by spring, but we should also get carried away by winter.

On mild days, I like to look at the buds of cherries and apples, and lap up the anticipation of spring, or search for the waxy bloom on smooth branches of willows or dogwood, or see how rain polishes the bark of crape myrtles and hornbeams.

When I'm out looking at trees and feeling the cold, I summon in my memory that first post-storm week of July, when there was no power and no escape from the sticky heat.

So, savor trees in winter and regard them as if you have a camera, even if you don't.

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