In our part of the world we are surrounded by trees. We are so used to seeing trees that we don’t really look at them anymore. When we do attend to them we see them in their entirety, trunk and an undifferentiated mass of leaves. As autumn approaches some of us pay a little more attention, the flame of maples, the sheen of dark oaks and the gold of birches, but still we are not seeing the whole and complex reality of the tree.
In their book “Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees,” (Timber Press $29.95) Nancy Ross Hugo and photographer Robert Llewwllyn show us the details. They show us what we have been missing. “There is always something to watch when you are paying attention to the intimate details that define tree species and the processes that characterize their life cycles. . . . a practiced tree-watcher knows there are dozens of seasons.’”
I like the conceit of likening tree watching being akin to bird watching. I have never gotten very far as a bird watcher, barely able to distinguish big birds from little birds. Somehow I just can’t see fast enough. Trees have the advantage of standing still. The leaves may dance in the breeze but I can pluck a branch and examine it at close range, noticing the arrangement of leaves on a twig, the form of the leaf, whether the edges are smooth, notched or scalloped, and the tracery of veins.
Even so, Hugo and Llewwllyn show me that I have only noticed the grossest of details. To help and guide me Llewwllyn used a “new form of photography. Using software developed for work with microscopes, he creates sharp close-ups by stitching together 8 to 45 images of each subject – each shot at a different focal point.” I don’t really understand how that works, but I can tell you that the result is a gorgeously illustrated book.
The book begins with advice on viewing strategies and quickly moves on to discussing individual traits, from leaves, to flowers and cones, fruit, buds and leaf scars, and bark and twigs. This is just the beginning of learning a new vocabulary with words like lenticils, breathing pores in bark, or strobili, the gingko’s male reproductive structures. Sometimes a familiar word like ovules which is obviously related to ovary rates a lush description from Hugo: (gingko ovules) have pointed tips and are held atop the cup-like ends of the stalks. To me, this stalk looks like a miniature crutch, the ovules like breasts with nipples angled away from each other.” In every case there are clear and extraordinarily beautiful photographs showing each feature in magnified detail.
I have gingkos in my lawn bed and I am now longing to see strobili and pollination droplets, but I think the odds are against me. When people visit and look at the gingkos they ask how I stand the stink. I’m told that gingkos emit a terrible smell, but I have also been told they don’t do this until they have reached puberty and are capable of producing pollen and making those stinky seeds. As far as I can tell it takes more years for a gingko to reach maturity than I have to worry about. I think I will never see – or smell – the process in my own garden.
Fortunately, Hugo and Llewwllyn have devoted the major part of their book to ten chapters about common trees that most of us have in our own backyards, or possibly local parking lots. In addition to my gingkos I have paid some attention to the American beech in our woodland because I am fascinated by the fact that it holds its dead brown leaves through the winter. Only in the spring do the new leaves push the old leaves off the twig in a process called marcescense. Of course, white pine and red maple grow around our house as well. The sex life of these trees is more visible than I thought. White pines, like all pines, have male and female cones on the same tree. Hugo quotes a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication from 1899 that described the “purplish rosy lips of the erect pistillate cone (of the white pine)”. What prose!
I am looking forward to seeing the tiny eastern red cedars that I planted this spring as they grow. Apparently I will have to wait for the juvenile needle-like foliage of my trees to develop the scale-like form that I like so much. I’ll watch closely.
The other five trees they examine are the American sycamore, black walnut, southern magnolia, tulip poplar, and white oak.
Nancy Ross Hugo has taught, lectured and written about trees as well as native plants and design for over thirty years. In this book she gives credit to John Hayden, a biology professor at the University of Richmond and her patient mentor. She had to be careful of her vocabulary too, and the ways she explained the botany to all of us.
It is no surprise to learn that Robert Llewwllyn’s photographs have been featured in major art exhibits, not only botanical books.
I have only one further comment to make about this beautiful and exciting book: the gift giving season will soon be upon us.
Between the Rows September 24, 2011