The year in trees

I always enjoy it when other bloggers do year-in-review surveys of their best photos, so I thought I’d try that myself this year, but limit it to trees so I can submit this to the New Year’s edition of the Festival of the Trees, which will be hosted at xenogere, home of so much great nature writing and photography. As usual, I’m linking to photos hosted on Flickr; clicking on them takes you to their photo pages there, where clicking on the “all sizes” magnifying-glass icon above each photo will allow you to see larger versions.

magic oak

This tree with its pair of crazy limbs has always reminded me of some kind of wizard. The photo originally appeared in “Haiku for a day in January.”

Trees that grow along forest edges often develop a lopsided appearance as limbs on the open side try to grab as much sun as they can. The powerline right-of-way that crosses the mountain a couple hundred feet south of the houses is a century old now, which has given the older trees, such as this rock oak (Quercus prinus), plenty of time to grow strange.

College Ave. elm

Penn State University has spared no expense in trying to protect its stately old American elms (Ulmus americana) from the ravages of Dutch elm disease, physically separating the root systems from one another with underground barriers and removing trees as soon as they contract the disease. This picture gives some indication of why they go to so much trouble. Maybe if the University Park campus didn’t have so goddamn many ugly buildings it wouldn’t matter so much. The elms present an alternate architecture of the spirit.


This is what the forest looks like near my house after a long winter: the moss is in its glory. I mentioned the song of the blue-headed vireo in the original post, “In the vernal pool,” and that’s the soundtrack you ought to imagine here. You can hear a sound clip on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page, which characterizes it very well: “a broken series of slurred notes, with each phrase ending in either a downslur or an upswing, as if the bird asks a question, then answers it, over and over.”

Amelanchier 2

Amelanchier arborea and its congeners go by many names: shadbush, shadblow, serviceberry, Juneberry, sarvis. It’s one of the earliest native trees to flower, and a personal favorite. I wrote about it back on April 26: “In shadblow time.”

fly on ash leaves

For me, summer starts when a walk turns from a pleasure into an insect-bedeviled chore. I snapped this shot of a deerfly on white ash (Fraxinus americana) leaves on a hot, humid day in early June when “in less than a minute after entering the woods, I acquire[d] an aura of insects.” The photo, of course, captures none of the misery — and taking it helped me see the beauty of my persecutors, if only for a moment.

goat tree

Speaking of persecutors: trees and forests worldwide have suffered the effects of overgrazing for millennia, especially by goats. It was with that perspective in mind that I shot this image of a goat resting at the base of a white oak (Quercus alba) at the Amish farm in Sinking Valley where we buy most of our vegetables. I selected and lightened the tree trunk to make the bark more visible, but this didn’t make the goat look any less otherworldly. Commenters on “Livestock,” the post in which it appeared, likened it to Pan or a unicorn.

black snake in a tree

A black rat snake in a black walnut (Juglans nigra). I don’t think I ever blogged this photo, because I was too busy making a black-and-white video poem out of the footage I shot that day. Two months later, we spotted the snake emerging from the same spot under the eaves we’d watched it enter in July, and I combined the footage (in color this time) for a straight-ahead wildlife video.

porcupine oak

This photo and the next were both taken at a lovely property of some friends of ours an hour to the west of here on the Allegheny Plateau. (See the complete photoset.) The species here is red oak (Quercus rubra), and our hosts told us that its hollow center often served as a home to porcupines. Like many oaks, red oak can live for hundreds of years due to its effectiveness at sealing off dead portions with thick scar tissue and preventing further decay. This particular tree seemed to owe its longevity in part to the good fortune of being located on a property line.

hemlock throne

Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) don’t start life on top of stumps nearly as often as, say, yellow birch, but our friends’ forest did contain a couple of examples of trees that had begun that way. I read somewhere that tree stumps and nurse logs, as they’re called, are actually highly infertile environments, but they act as refuges from certain soil bacteria that can otherwise be toxic to seedlings. I wonder if such perches might not also afford some protection from mice, which also kill quite a few tree seedlings.

luna moth on a black walnut tree

I was taking the garbage to the compost pile one evening after supper when I spotted this luna moth on one of the big black walnut trees in front of the main house. Its wings were still damp; it hadn’t been out of the chrysalis for very long. Somehow in looking at the green wings one notices the green and blue lichens on the tree bark, as well. Impossible not to wax poetic.

mushroom stump

Of all the tree photos I shot in the Adirondacks in October, this dead stump was my favorite. I’m not sure of the species, but it’s probably a birch, and certainly a hardwood, though anything but hard by now. (See “On Adirondack Trails” for the original context.)

October snowstorm 4: shadbush leaves

Amelanchier again, this time during our freak October snowstorm.

witch hazel 2

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), like shadbush, attracts attention in part because it flowers when the woods are brown and bare. It’s the most common understorey tree on the mountain, shown here with the most common canopy-height tree, rock oak (also known as chestnut oak). They are both exceedingly ornery species which stump-sprout vigorously in response to cutting, which helps account for their abundance.

logged clearing

And speaking of cutting, here’s one of several photos of a neighbor’s high-graded woods which for some reason I decided to try to turn into daguerreotypes.

wild apple

I’ve written about the wild apple tree behind my house at some length in the past. This time, I just needed an illustration for a poem I wanted to post called “Wild Apple.” It was overcast and the light was poor, so I was surprised this hurried shot turned out as well as it did.

barn window view

One last black walnut tree photo, this time from a barn window, looking up across the field toward the black cherry (Prunus serotina) woods of Sapsucker Ridge.

12 Replies to “The year in trees”

  1. What a fabulous review! I remember many of the photos and enjoyed seeing them again. I love the two window ones, the last reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth painting.

    Wishing you a pleasant Christmas time with all your family, Dave, and that you will still have some of that lovely snow around painting your woods so beautifully. That’s magic to me! You mentioned rain in your comment but I hope that the weatherman is mistaken!

    1. Thanks, Marja-Leena. I keep hoping they’ll be wrong about the freezing rain and we’ll get snow instead, but it doesn’t look good. Still, I hate to complain — it’s the Midwest that’s borne the brunt of this storm system so far. Glad I’m not in retail.

  2. Wow, fantastic collection, Dave! (Maybe I’ll try this…) I love the fungi from the Adirondacks, the ghostly goat, and that luna moth, but they’re all winners.

    1. You should try it! I thought it would make an easy post, but actually it took hours to pull together. At least I added plenty of new content, though. Glad you liked the collection.

  3. A spectacular collection Dave. It must have been a tough call to choose your favourites as all the photographs you post are beautifully considered. (This is really an act of curating, putting together a body of work to represent your photographer’s ‘eye’.)

    Today has dawned grey and misty here in the Ystwyth Valley. None of the treacherous ice that turned our drive into a skating rink a week ago. I hope that your Christmas day is a fine one in every way.

    1. Thanks, Clive. Actually it wasn’t as hard as it might’ve been in previous years because I took significantly fewer photos. Trees have consistently been my favorite photographic subjects, though — far more than people.

      We got some ice today, but the temperature eventually climbed high enough above freezing that the precipitation turned to straight rain, and it’s supposed to stay that way overnight. I’d much rather have snow, of course, but anything’s better than freezing rain.

  4. These are great, Dave, and nice commentary. I can see how it would have taken you hours to do. I looked at this post the other day and it sent me back to my blog to look at the year past, but the endless yakking of my dad’s TV doesn’t lend itself to introspection. Maybe if I have time when I’m back home.

  5. What a great idea. Your beautiful photos inspire me to keep working on getting good tree shots. I’m finding it particularly challenging to capture “treeness” in a single photo. I think I’ve been trying too hard to sum up a tree rather than focusing on particular aspects.

    I’m also growing more and more fond of serviceberry. It’s so beautiful in spring and a natural bird feeder throughout summer.

    1. Hi Elizabeth – Glad you liked the post. It is hard to capture the essence of a tree in one photo, no doubt. National Geographic online has this video about the enormous trouble and expense they went to to photograph one of the tallest redwoods from top to bottom for a single, composite picture. That’s something we’d never even see otherwise, unless we cut down the surrounding trees!

      Serviceberry is handsome in winter, too — at least the species we have, with its dark pinstripes on pale gray bark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.