The Pacific madrone

The Pacific madrone

I have a memory of acid-green tree bark.

Two years ago, while a passenger in a car traveling to Coupeville, Washington, I remember seeing this most unusual color on the trees lining Madrona Way.  So on my recent trip to Whidbey Island, I was determined to find them again so that I could photograph the amazing bark.

I did find the trees, the Pacific madrone or madrona, along the winding Madrona Way, but the trunks exhibited a burnt sienna color — no acid green.  Could I have mis-remembered?  Looking for more information, I came across this Seattle Times article which describes some of the more amazing attributes of this native tree:  it’s a “broadleaf evergreen tree” (we think of evergreen trees as having needles) with “bonsai’d branches.”  It’s a “cliff hugging” tree, so the winding road along Puget Sound was its natural habitat.  And then the article mentioned “pistachio” colored bark.  So it seems I might have I remembered correctly after all.

The Times article also introduced me to the local artist David Harrison, who frequently features the madrona tree in work.  You can see some of this paintings here.

And here are my photos:

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Reading Bark

March 7, 2013

“Bark is a subtle, supple substance, easily overlooked.  It can be thought of as the tree’s skin; like skin, it carries the marks of folding and of expansion, a stretching which snaps it into flakes or plates or lenticles.  If you were to take slow-motion footage of elm bark over a year, you would be able to see it moving, working, living:  crevasses gaping, calluses forming, the constant springing open and closing over of fissures.  As Constable knew, a world can reveal itself in a tree’s bark.  Lean in close to bark, and you will find a landscape which you might enter, through whose ravines and edges you might take day-long journeys.”
— Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places

John Constable’s painting of the Hampstead Heath elm

Wouldn’t it be amazing to watch a fast-motion film of bark expanding and contracting over the course of a year?  I wonder if anyone has already done so.

Winter is certainly a great time to read bark.  It’s so varied and beautiful.  Here are some examples from my recent walks:

Tree trunk with moss, lichen and fungi

Tree trunk with moss, lichen and fungi

Tree with knot holes and peeling bark

Tree with knot holes and peeling bark

Such color!

Such color!

Scarred trunk with moss

Scarred trunk

Ink contour-line drawing of bark

Ink contour-line drawing of bark

New Use of Old Wood

December 31, 2012

“When trees mature, it is fair and moral that they are cut for man’s use, as they would soon decay and return to the earth.  Trees have a yearning to live again, perhaps to provide the beauty, strength and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth.”
— George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree:  A Wood-worker’s Reflections

Handmade wooden bowl

Handmade wooden bowl

Bowl made from a red maple tree fallen on my family's farm

Bowl made from a red maple tree fallen on my family’s farm

“Ours is a search for pure truth in the most realistic ways — the making of things.”
— George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree:  A Wood-worker’s Reflections

“There is a line from a Sexton poem: ‘The writer is essentially a crook./  Out of used furniture he makes a tree.’  . . . After all, that is what art should do; create something natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.”
— Maxine Kumin, To Make a Prairie

One of my most cherished Christmas gifts this year was this wooden bowl made from a fallen red maple tree on my Dad’s farm.  My sister and brother-in-law commissioned the bowl from a wood worker they knew.  It’s a wonderful keepsake from my childhood home, a one-of-a-kind work of art, new use for old wood.

Coincidentally, David Perry, one of the bloggers I follow, just wrote about handmade wooden plates made by a Vermont woodworker and friend.  Perry’s post is a love song to things analog, like the handmade wooden plates and bowl.  I can relate.


Maple trees stripped of leaves

Maple trees stripped of leaves

This post concludes my year-long Tree-Watching Project.  I started this project in December of last year and followed my “adopted” willow and maple trees through all four seasons.  I will, of course, continue to notice, observe, and remark upon interesting tree happenings in the year to come, but my “official” project is over.

My “adopted” maple and willow trees have now been stripped of all their leaves after a very rainy, windy, and blustery few weeks.  What leaves have not blown away remain in soggy ground cover beneath the trees.

Wet maple leaves stuck together in the grass

Wet maple leaves stuck together in the grass

The maple tree is now bare of leaves

The maple tree is now bare of leaves

Decaying maple leaf stuck to the sidewalk

Decaying maple leaf stuck to the sidewalk


Fallen willow leaves, almost iridescent and velvety to touch

New life, new buds on the willow tree

New life, new buds on the willow tree

It seems fitting to end this series with the promise of new life, the first buds on the willow tree.

You may recall that I found the inspiration for my tree-watching project from reading Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Hugo.  So for the book lovers among you, here is a review of some remarkable tree books published this year, which I found listed in this article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  I’ve already reserved most of these titles at my local library.  Enjoy!

Superimposed maple leaves

“Every blade in the field — every leaf in the forest — lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.  It is the pastime of a full quarter of the year. . . . And what is that pride of our autumnal scenery but the hectic flush — its painted throes — with the November air for canvas?”
—  Henry David Thoreau, “October, or Autumnal Tints”

It’s been a while since I’ve photographed my “adopted” maple trees and willow.  After a few windy, blustery November days, almost all of the willow leaves have fallen.  The maple holds on to its lower leaves, but the upper branches are stripped of leaves.

Last golden maple leaves cling to the tree’s lower branches

My “adopted” maple trees in late November

A lone willow leaf

Fallen willow leaf






Walking the bald cypress-lined path at Green Lake

The bald cypress is an intriguing tree.  Its leaves look like the needles of evergreen trees, so when they begin turning color in the fall, you wonder whether the tree is diseased.  But no, it is in fact a deciduous tree, and the color change is normal.  It’s also a conifer.  Green Lake Park in Seattle has several tall specimens.

Cones of the bald cypress

Impressionist-like curtain of foliage — turning rusty orange in November



Fallen maple leaves with raindrops

Fallen leaves at Lake Chelan State Park

“Adding a leaf’s breadth to the depth of the soil.”

“How pleasant to walk over beds of these fresh, crisp, rustling fallen leaves — young hyson, green tea, clean, crisp, and wholesome!  How beautiful they go to their graves!  how gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!  — painted of a thousand hues and fit to make the beds of us living.  So they troop to their graves, light and frisky.  They put on no weeds.  Merrily they go scampering over the earth, selecting their graves, whispering all through the woods about it.  They that waved so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high!  How they are mixed up, all species, — oak and maple and chestnut and birch!  they are about to add a leaf’s breadth to the depth of the soil.  We are all the richer for their decay.  Nature is not cluttered with them.  She is a perfect husbandman; she stores them all.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals, October 20, 1853

Fallen maple leaf on pavement, already starting to decay

Autumn is that elegiac time of year, and fallen leaves are its emblem.  I recently read (in a blog I follow called “The Improvised Life“) about an intriguing art installation by Jane Hammond consisting of handmade leaves, each inscribed with the name of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.  This memorial sculpture is called Fallenand it seemed fitting to share it with you today, Veteran’s Day, when we honor all service men and women, living and dead.  You can follow the links to read more about this piece of art and see it installed in its last exhibition.

“Men are like trees, each one must put forth the leaf that is created in him.”
Henry Ward Beecher

What kind of leaf are you best represented by?

“I give dates because I am a date tree.  Not everyone likes dates.  I tire of them, too.  I would like to give oranges, pomegranates, or coconuts.  But I don’t happen to grow anything but dates, unfortunately.”
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals 1947 – 1986

“But at the same time, those same two qualities — knowing that we have within us something that marks each of us in a special way and that this quality has been given to use for some reason greater than ourselves — are the essence of coming to wholeness.  The task of determining what that quality is and what to do with it is the single great work of being alive.”
— Joan Chittister, Following the Path:  The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
— e. e. cummings

“Am I still the person I have spent a lifetime becoming, and do I still want to be that person?”
Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom

“Here we stop saying, ‘Well, that’s just the way I am,’ and begin to say, ‘There is more that I can be.’ ”
— Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily:  Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today

I love these quotes because they make me think.  How much of who I am is “God-given” and how much can I control?  When I see my mother in me, or see similar mannerisms and qualities among my eight siblings (stubborn, opinionated, among them), then I know that nature and nurture have perhaps irredeemably shaped large parts of my being.  The leaf does not fall far from the tree!

Looked at that way, the challenge is to develop my talents and tendencies to bring out the best rather than the worst.  To make what can be only my unique contribution to the world.  To champion differences rather than pressure others to fit into my comfort zone.

And yet, there must be a large dose of choice at work.  Can I choose to become a better person, to overcome my faults, to grow into the person I am meant to be?  Can I choose a new path, regardless of my age?  What leaves can I bring forth, and with what vigor?

Strolling along tall cedar trees, Washington Park Arboretum

I made a special visit to the Washington Park Arboretum yesterday to experience Paths II: The Music of Trees, a series of seven sound installations by composer Abby Aresty.  She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, and this outdoor music project is her dissertation.  She recorded natural sounds at these sites in different seasons, and then used them in compositions, which are broadcast in three-hour “concerts” on Wednesdays and Saturdays in October. You can read more about this remarkable project in this Seattle Times article.

I didn’t want the month to pass without checking out this unusual art project.  Armed with a map from the Visitor’s Center, I strolled the paths looking for the seven listening sites.  As always, I enjoyed wandering among the many tall trees of the arboretum.  And the unique soundscapes made this visit especially memorable.

“Twisted things continue to make creaking contortions.” (Gaston Bachelard). At Site 1, twisted plastic tubing becomes “mutant” branches.

The path near Site 1: The Music of Trees

Staircase under Japanese maple, Washington Park Arboretum

Walking beneath the rhododendrons at Site 4, where the sounds featured raindrops on leaves

Rhododendron bud

Site 6 used hanging sculptures like wind chimes, and the music incorporated the sounds of falling leaves.

Looking up into the maple tree at Site 7. I couldn’t hear the sound concert because a maintenance crew was blowing leaves down the way.

Washington Park Arboretum

Light-dappled curtain of leaves


Colorful Japanese maple against evergreen

Cluster of oak leaves

Bench, Washington Park Arboretum

Street light, Washington Park Arboretum

“To experience the idiosyncrasies of falling leaves on a visceral level, try catching them.  ‘Every leaf you catch this month means a happy month next year,’ I once read, and I’ve made it my business to catch twelve leaves each fall ever since.  It’s harder than you think, nabbing leaves from air.”
— Nancy Ross Hugo, Seeing Trees:  Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees

Fallen maple leaf, early October

“The action of leaves in air, when they’re falling, provides the most compelling images of this season  . . . leaves twist, twirl, or spin . . .”
—  Nancy Ross Hugo, Seeing Trees:  Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees

“Down, down!
Yellow and brown
The leaves are falling over the town.”
— Eleanor Farjean, “Down, Down”

Well, I’ve heard “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket,” but I’d never before heard about the beneficent powers latent in falling leaves to bring happiness.   This year I will have to try to catch a few.  I imagine this might be harder than it appears — you have to predict just where those wayward leaves might land!

“The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
As if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning ‘no.'”
— Rainier Maria Rilke, “Autumn”