Saturday, March 8, 2014

New Light, Old Trees

            The temperature went to the mid-fifties today and everyone who wanted to do anything in the last two months on a Saturday got into their car and did it. Not surprisingly roads were crowded and traffic backed up all over the Quincy-Boston area.
            Even without higher temps, over the last two weeks the increasing amount of light and growing length of day has been dragging our tired psyches into thoughts of seasonal succession. A higher sun seems to have lifted the sky itself. The balance between light and darkness is evening out. Birds have changed their tune and are singing even in raw afternoons when the sun doesn't shine, the wind doesn't slack, and the humans go around muttering under their breath. The calendar of the sun's ascent tells the birds it's time to be starting that round of activities that leads to more birds.
            The light has had its way with the snow too. It bakes the top of the snow fields into a kind of heavy, shiny saran wrap that's shiny and brightly reflective from a distance, but has a plastic, unnatural looking consistency up close that simply don't look long for this world. Where the snow meets pavement at the edge of the road or sidewalk the melt water gathers under the ice, squirming like the first germs of life.
            At Boston's Arnold Arboretum, where we found both clear paths and old snow, we glimpsed other signs that spring is on its way. Children pop up, little ones especially, on these warmish late winter-early spring days. Some walked free, others were ferried in strollers and all manner of baby carriers; some rode tiny bicycles, including one that lacked petals -- who needs petals if you have quick feet? They were dogged by a cartoonish diversity of tiny canines.
            This time of year is also an excellent opportunity to appreciate the skeletal structures -- or natural architecture -- of deciduous trees. The snow's no longer thick enough to obscure the pattern of the branches, the cold doesn't hurry you along, and the new buds and leafage are still far off. What you have is the tangle, the watershed delta-like branching of the limbs.
            Rivers "branch" because their divisions resemble trees.
            "Tree diagrams" are based on the growth patterns of branches. These patterns are objects lessons in change and progression over time. 
            And some trees have a lot more time to work with than people do. Sequoias, perhaps the most long-living lifeforms on earth, can live from 1,200 to1,800 years or more. Maybe longer if we leave them alone.
            We learned, in the course of our ignorant gawking at a shapely, leafless, and utterly unknown (to us) tree, that another kind of sequoia is now growing in the eastern USA at sites such as the Arnold Arboretum. As we admired the tree from across the path, passing incorrect guesses back and forth on the species of this fine specimen --
            "Is it a cedar?"
            "You mean a cypress?"
             "But if it's a cypress how come it's leafless in the winter?" --
a learned gentlemen of a certain age did us the favor of identifying the tree and telling us about it.
            "It's a metasequoia."
            "A sequoia?"
             "Yes, but a metasequoia."

            The species had been known only as a fossil, the professorial looking stranger informed us, and was believed to be extinct.
            But then the tree was discovered in China. The arboretum sent people over to bring some seeds back and it was grown successfully here. Seedlings were then distributed to other sites in America and Europe.
            Looking for sources later at home (once I got the spelling right), I learned that the metasequoia is indeed deciduous and described as one of the three species commonly called "redwoods." It was "rediscovered" in the 1940s in a mountainous region of China. It grows to about 200 feet and has become a popular ornamental.
            As a fossil it was placed in the Mesozoic age, the time of dinosaurs, lasting from 250 to 66 million years ago. That's another way of being a long-lived tree.
            The tree has an oversized candelabra shape to it, branches lifted to the sides like arms akimbo. A yellow-brownish cast to the bark, not as red as the redwoods we saw growing in California. The higher branches are festooned with what looked like last year's seedpods. (Top two photos on left.)
            The man who identified the metasequoia for us also told us we would find some other intriguingly shaped trees just around the bend. We walked on and found his trees --beeches: thick-trunked, thickly branched, beautifully articulated forms. (third and fourth photos.)
            Green will have its day, and it's coming soon, but bare is beautiful as well.