While it is always good to endeavor to see the forest through the trees, sometimes you just see the trees in the forest.
And that is okay if you are seeing and appreciating the beauty of the trees in winter. Without all of the trees’ green finery, you are left with sculptures in the woods.
Shapes, textures and bits of color stand out in the winter. Some trees become harder to identify, while other practically shout their identity.
Beetlebung are easy to spot now: find them in wet woodlands. Their ruddy bark is furrowed and their branches extend straight out from their trunks at a 90-degree angle, which always makes them remind me of spinning princesses dancing in the wetlands. And cherry trees have their lenticels, or dashes, on their bark to help identify them and help them respire (breathe) and often black crumbly-looking galls on their twigs.
But if beetlebungs are the princesses and the cherries are the court, no one would argue that the oak is the king — in Island forests as well as in our hearts:
The monarch oak, the patriarch of the trees,
Shoots rising up, and spreads by slow degrees.
Three centuries he grows, and three he stays
Supreme in state; and in three more decays.
— John Dryden,
Palamon and Arcite
A song to the oak, the brave old oak,
Who hath ruled in the greenwood long;
Here’s health and renown to his broad green crown,
And his fifty arms so strong.
There’s fear in his frown when the Sun goes down,
And the fire in the West fades out;
And he showeth his might on a wild midnight,
When the storms through his branches shout.
— Henry Fothergill Chorley,
The Brave Old Oak
Oaks are considered the “great protectors and guardians of the virtuous.” They are held holy and revered by many cultures.
In the Bible, the oak tree at Shechem is the site where Jacob buried the foreign gods. Abraham saw angels under an oak tree, and to ancient Hebrews this tree was also holy. Almost all of the pagan gods were linked to the power of the oak — it was sacred to Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Mars and Hercules. Titans were described as men that had been stretched on oaken wheels. Don’t discount the goddesses that loved this tree, either, for they concur with the gods on this one.
For good reason: the oak’s impressive, deep roots make a perfect symbol for a god or goddess whose law extends to heaven, earth and the underworld. The derivation of the name oak comes from a word that means door. Oaks are thought to be the door between this world and the underworld. Their roots are the passageway between the two — so watch your step.
If you are faint of heart, stay away from the mighty oak. As an old British saying goes, “Beware of an oak, it draws the stroke” — possibly a reference to an attraction for lightning as well as medical maladies.
Here on the Island you will find a few varieties. White, black, scarlet, post and scrub oaks are the most common. They can hybridize, but are easily identifiable by their leaves. In their winter nakedness, it is a little more challenging to put a name to a bark. A field guide is the best resource and a perfect gift in this season.
Robert Louis Stevenson had the ability to see both the forest and the trees at the same time, and to recognize the splendor and inspiration of both: he observed that “it is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” I wish as much for you at this time of year.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.