I've squandered the last two weeks of my life on a pointless, hopeless quest. My expectations and confidence were high. I truly believed a little effort, a little concentration, and I would be able to identify most familiar trees from a distance, simply by looking at their winter silhouetttes. An easy task; one I would enjoy, one I always, every winter, intend to make progress with.
Now I remember why I give up, just as annually. Always with the same sense of baffled and regretful failure, but with a bit of relief too. It's just much more difficult than I ever imagined. The quicker spring comes the better.
So let's turn to the mystery of the wonderful Long and Wasted Years (from Tempest) where the protagonist measures the closeness and the distance in his relationships with others, lining them out for us. Each verse sketches an entire story, with rounded characters and some uncomfortable stripped moments of truth. I feel I could listen to it forever
That crunchy voice speaks, so speakingly, fleshing out the bones, outlining all the possibilities. It’s an absolute tour-de-force, in my view. The spacing, the economy, the effectiveness, the amplitude. There I go, a true fan, with no pretences.
Winter pares trees down, to the essence of themselves. The spring limps towards us this year, but they're preparing to live again, thickening slightly in the bud. I'm getting ready for all the loveable greenness, but I did so want to attach names to shapes, at a glance, at a distance, like any of us could do with people we know, just from their stance, their form, and the way they turn and walk away.
Perhaps when people had less visual stimulation from all quarters, it would have been possible to enjoy a quiet game of Guess The Winter Tree, simply from the distant shape. That's the game I would have loved to play, Vegas or Pamplona being beyond my horizons.
To be frank, it’s hopeless starting with an anonymous youthful mass like the mysterious line in my second photograph. You need mature trees, standing at a distance, trees that haven't been too interfered with. That's hard here in Mondovi', where the winter snows are deep and heavy. They break great limbs off, so in towns trees are rarely allowed to develop their wider characteristic forms.
Here below is the ordinary hornbeam, You can see how it relates to the ones above, masses of dark, spidery feelers, slightly cupped overall shape.
And here is its trained and tidied brother again, contrasting itself to a distant lime, which looks absurdly small. I only think it’s a lime because it’s doing that thing of growing like a tower,with its oldest internal structural branches pushing up, its external slenderer branches sweeping downwards. That's what means a lime, tilia, to me. Close up, I look for the old flowers.
These are the things that drive a person to distraction and disillusion. You get stuck in these endless loops, you just want to get out, like a bee in the narcotic flowers, you fall to the ground, stunned and enraged.
Anyway, look at the two photographs below again. See the characteristic dome shape of the lime's fastest growing area at the very top of the tree on the right? Sometimes a hard thing to combine attractively with the down-sweeping older branches, which are just beginning to grow out and down. Tilia euchlora could be a suspect here, or it's the comon lime planning to be enormous. The one on the left is already considerably taller, and perhaps older. Perhaps that accounts for the difference in shape. Perhaps it doesn't. Now I'm screaming inside.
So here's our last lime, an enormous one. Which one is it? Too big to be cordata, not as suckery as the common hybrid europea, but the right size. Might be platyphyllos but too wide really. Multiple upthrusters all sweeping and bending down, not a proper tower shape, but perhaps that's because it's had a good well-lit position and been left alone. There are others which it might be, or not. Possibly tomentosa, the silver lime. My reference book rushes to my rescue and kindly points out that even specialists are confused by limes and study the hairs on the backs of the leaves to be sure of which is which. Some of these hairs "contrive to be star-shaped". Now I think I've definitely gone mad. However, as a family they are "easy to spot, hard to tell apart". And that's definitely been my experience. Just to identify the family begins seem like an achievement.
Cherries are perhaps the least messily close-branched in this family and can stretch widely, sometimes even gracefully. You can tell those by the shiny circularly marked bark and the congested buds when you get close. I'm saying that because it's what I think, I haven't checked it yet. From a distance it's whenever you think a small tree looks interesting, sometimes a bit weird - get up close, it's often a cherry.
How fortunate that we have Hugh Johnson’s wonderful International Book of Trees. It was originally published in 1973, when “International”may have sounded less like a dreary, inaccessible concrete airport. It packs an enormous amount of information and some beautiful photographs into an interesting illustrated format. It helps you understand trees in their families, and how they grow, their geography, ecology, history and importance to human beings.
Another tour de force, this book gains in value and interest to me every year. Mr Johnson is a man capable of truly heroic feats of digestion and transmission of information. But even his book is a little short on winter identification; my belief that it ought to be a popular hobby becomes ever more eccentric.
“I first saw the Italian alder ( A. cordata) growing by the terrace of a mansion that had been burnt down…..the garden was rank and dispiriting, the ponds choked, the once-trim columns of yew toppling and coming apart. What were those gleaming dark green trees still formal and polished as butlers in the chaos?.....A tall and narrow tree, though with branches more horizontal than upright. Substantial heart-shaped leaves like a birch’s, but darker green and glossy. Remarkable little cones: black eggs standing up on the branch-tips in trios.”
And here he is on silver birch – “its beauty lies in its poise; the way it puts dense swarms of lacy twigs in the air with the flimsiest engineering”. There are the words - dense, swarm and flimsy. Do they apply to other birches? I leave it with you.
Try poplars – this anonymous hybrid that was planted for subsidies here opts for fragile long-limbed wafting.
Lovely arms, but a tendency to fall over, a slightly sad and fin-de-siecle feeling to it. Planted in tight farmed lines it makes a brutal kind of sense. Sometimes it resembles branches stuck in the ground any old how. The spacing was regular when the plantation below was started, this hybrid has no name, just a number. It should be called Blanche Dubois.
I'll briefly turn to the pedunculate or English oak, which to me is a proper tree, one that seems to grow with a sense of purpose, homely but baroque at the same time. I hadn't quite captured the sense of purpose in my mind till I read Hugh Johnson quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes,
“Others (trees) shirk the work of resisting gravity; the oak defies it. It chooses the horizontal direction for its limbs, so that their whole weight may tell, and then stretches them fifty or sixty feet…. to slant upward another degree would mark infirmity of purpose; to bend downwards, weakness of organisation."
The sound of the song and the sight of certain trees gives the same upward lift. I had thought the ash, whose branches turn up at the ends, whose buds are so beautifully sooty, whose strong, buoyant shape can carry you with it, I had thought the ash would stand for the song. And it's a tree I can pick out, relatively comfortably, apart from when I'm confusing it with the grey sturdiness of a walnut. But I cannot speak of the ash, for it is doomed and cursed in much of Europe now – a fungus advances and fear and worry accompany what was once a joyful if ordinary sight.
The singer begins with a relationship where one moment was perfect and "we loved each other and our hearts were true”; to a sadder couple, connected but lonely, only comforted by the sense that they're both feeling the same thing.
In another verse, how hard it is to understand the loss of a family; then, how an apology might be required for secretiveness; and the song ends with a wrenching last verse of tears and torn souls. It seems to be a catalogue of negative, but balancing, emotional experiences set against the swelling rise of the whole structure and decorated with subtle invasions of resolution and joy – the equal of the lifts at the ends of the branches of an ash or the upward twists on the longer branches of an ailanthus.
Sometimes, indeed mostly, these thrilling lifts are contained in the very way the words are said or sung. When the singer apologises you can almost see his expression, placatory but humorous and conspiratorial. What a sweetly intimate joke about sending his baby to jail. The double edge there is big enough to be the two sides of a great yawning gulf.
Let's leave the ailanthus, it served as a shape, but it's not a tree to develop a close relationship with, though it's hard to keep at a distance if you've already got it. Unresolveable.