Winter Trees

January 22, 2013

Row of birches in a city parking strip

Row of birches in a city parking strip

“I had been walking alone in the winter woods my entire life and never found them without surprise, joy or inspiration. . . The experience of the woods in winter is almost entirely visual:  shadow and sunlight; tree trunks turned black, gray and white, some of them smooth as suede, others rough as oyster shells.  The light is everything, turning ice-tipped branches into ornaments and the quartz caught in granite boulders into pink jewels.  I stopped from time to time to absorb the silence.  The winter woods are nearly always silent.  There may be the muffled woof of snow falling from the burdened bough of a spruce tree or the isolated chatter of chickadees as they search among the softwood for seeds, but usually the only sound is the rasp of one’s own breathing.”
— Lou Ureneck, Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine

I find city trees just as much a visual treat as those in a winter woods described above.  The variances in the bark — colors and textures — is amazing.  Here are a few photos from a recent walk in north Seattle:

Weathered maple keys look like moth wings

Weathered maple keys look like moth wings

Curling bark

Curling bark

The healed knot from a lost branch

The healed knot from a lost branch

Dappled summer shade — under the maple tree

“And so the root
becomes a trunk
And then a tree
And seeds of trees
And springtime sap
And summer shade
And autumn leaves
And shape of poems
And dreams —
And more than tree.”
— from “For Russell and Rowena Jelliffe,” Uncollected Poems 1961-1967, by Langston Hughes

Time marches on, as evidenced by the slow changes on my “adopted” maple tree.  My photo for this post captured the dappled shade on one of the last days of summer.  The autumn equinox is at 7:49 a.m. tomorrow morning in Seattle.

Leaves and seeds

Watercolor sketch of leaves and seeds showing fall colors

Maple tree with green leaves and red maple keys

A few leaves on this maple tree have turned color

Layers of red and green

Green leaves and green maple keys on my “adopted” maple trees

If variety is the spice of life, you’d do well to pay attention to maple trees which seem to come in endless variations.  I haven’t a clue to their names.  I picked up a handful of maple keys on a recent walk, and they are as varied as can be.

Several varieties of fallen maple keys

Maple keys

Watercolor sketch of maple keys

Thousands of fallen maples keys

The maple keys on my “adopted” trees are falling by the hundreds, possibly thousands.  Yet, hundreds more remain on the trees, and I expect some will stay attached until winter.  I marvel at the excess, nature’s way of ensuring that some of the seeds will take root.

Maple keys in the grass beneath the trees

Fallen maple keys


“If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the whole world.”
— John Ruskin

“Leaves are the verbs that conjugate the seasons.”
— Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

Watercolor sketch of maple leaves in May

Watercolor sketch of willow leaves in May

First, tiny but abundant, maple keys

I’ve been watching for the first signs of maple keys, and they suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere.  My “adopted” maple trees are now full of tiny, but abundant, maple keys.  I like how Wikipedia describes them:  “These seeds, or ‘whirlybirds,’ occur in distinctive pairs each containing one seed enclosed in a “nutlet” attached to a flattened wing of fibrous, papery tissue. They are shaped to spin as they fall and to carry the seeds a considerable distance on the wind. Children often call them “helicopters” due to the way that they spin as they fall. Seed maturation is usually in a few weeks to six months after flowering, with seed dispersal shortly after maturity. However, one tree can release hundreds of thousands of seeds at a time.”

I found more information about maple keys in The Rarest of Rare:  Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History by Nancy Pick:  “Botanists call seeds that produce their own life samaras . . . The maple’s asymmetry gives it an advantage.  Its samara is designed to flow through the air like a bird or an airplane wing, with a slicing leading edge.”

Tiny maple keys


Spring All in a Rush

May 5, 2012

Flowers at the University District Farmers Market

“The first days of May bring spring all in a rush.”
— Elisabeth Luard, A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse

My camera is getting a workout every time I step outside my door.  Here is a sampling of the Spring “rush” seen through my camera lens.

Buying fresh produce at a farmers market

Jugs of juice, University District Farmers Market

Ladyfern fiddleheads, University District Farmers Market

Bright yellow flowers growing in a parking strip

Delicate, blushing-pink maple helicopters (not from my “adopted” trees)

Rhododendron blossoms

Tulips growing horizontally along the ground!

Tulip with falling petal

“It’s sometimes harder to see the familiar than the unusual, because in order to really see the familiar, you have to break the habit of overlooking it.”
— Nancy Ross Hugo, Seeing Trees:  Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees

As I mentioned in my December 21st post, I will be taking up tree-watching in 2012.  I’ve decided to “adopt” three trees — the horse chestnut trees near my bus stop, a maple tree in the parking strip, and a willow (at least I think it’s a willow) in a nearby alley — for periodic observation during the coming year.  I’m curious to find out what I have been overlooking, and hope, by close observation, to become better acquainted with these common trees.

Here are some of my views of these trees in late December:

Fallen, brown leaves under a horse chestnut tree

Trunk, bark, and buds of horse chestnut tree

Wrinkled bark on the "underarm" of this branch

Lateral buds on horse chestnut branch

Terminal buds, resting buds and leaf scars of horse chestnut tree

New buds with old leaf stems still attached

Decaying maple leaves in the parking strip

Trunk and bark of maple tree

Terminal buds, resting buds of maple

Last of the old maple keys, still hanging on

Trunk and bark of willow

Winter buds of willow

Winter buds, resting buds of willow

Mobile made from maple keys

An assortment of colorful maple keys

Here’s a super simple fall decorating idea — sew together a garland of maple keys and hang them in a window.  They make a beautiful all-natural mobile.

I love the colors of the maple seed pods.  Here are a couple of watercolor sketches they inspired:

Watercolor sketch of maple keys

Another watercolor sketch of maple keys

Winter’s Lifeless World

January 6, 2011

“The poetry of earth is never dead.”
     — John Keats

Leafless trees of winter

Brown maple keys

Is there life in the heart of these maple keys?

“Of winter’s lifeless world each tree
     Now seems a perfect part;
Yet each one holds summer’s secret
     Deep down within its heart.”
     — Charles G. Stater