Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Stripped Bare - Long and Wasted Years

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.

We’ve lived with these skeletons for months, just so many waving branches, but sometimes I feel they hold all the secrets of plant-life, hiding in plain sight.  They’re so easy and obvious that our eyes slide over them.  Lines against the sky, telling us little, telling us everything.
Yes, they’re delicate calligraphy, elegant tracery, all that.  But they’re also damned irritating and hard to pin down.  Here in Piemonte, Italy these thin lines of slightly mixed trees are everywhere.  I assume they mark boundaries, or possibly streams or banks.  Anyway they’re charmingly characteristic and can outline a slope to its advantage or divide flat expanses with lace against the mist.

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.
But I need an expert on hand, or I need giant legs, so that I could bound forward, wrench a shoot off and then quickly back away to see the specimen from afar again.  Without helpful confirmations or corrections it’s hard to build a repertoire.  Too many trees fog into a confusion of fan-like, frondy similarity, startling in their likeness to coral, or other undersea forms.  Like ferns and grasses, or worse, mosses and lichens, the differences are both minutely insignificant and vast.

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. 

Before I knew what a waste of time this tree-guessing game would be I had imagined that careful observation from a distance would reveal subtly distinct angles of branching and twiggery.  I was going to excel on slight differences of angle of budding and length of limb.  That showed me though.  I found it impossible to collect enough examples of bare silhouettes that I could be absolutely sure of.  I was stuck with really obvious ones like weeping willow, Lombardy poplar, fastigiate hornbeam.
I’ve changed the rules now.  You can use whatever helps.  Either way I’ll win, playing here on my own.
So we'd better start here, spying the outlined shape, attaching the name.  You can do the same in your own areas, where you may have entirely different, more magnificent and certain looking trees.  Context is all, you need a rough idea of what might be there, rather than just starting with a blank slate.  Let’s begin with that fastigiate hornbeam, such a landscaper’s favourite.  Great in-curved balloons.

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.

Below are two more limes.   The one on the left may be a weeping version, like the one above, as the weeping seems integral, not just part of aging.  But Tilia petiolaris, the most likely weeping lime, is always grafted, and I could not find a graft.

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.

You might think I'm overdoing the limes, I certainly do, just wishing to make this point about age, shape and type, trying to rub the sand from my eyes.

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.

And here below is another outline, representing a group.  It’s a wild pear tree, and it shows the short-jointed, untidy structure that often marks the vast rose family, including apples, hawthorns, cherries, all those fruits and flowers.  Those are the words that help you spot them, confused old person or teenagers' bedroom words.  Random branching, disorganised structure, cluttered.  This one's a wild pear followed by a shapely hawthorn.

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. 
Just to start with the biggest of families, even that’s a help.   From there you can work forward, into finer distinctions and greater complexity. No-one could expect to tell all the different members of willows, or maples or poplars apart at speed, and from a distance.  A great mess of hawks and handsaws. 
Trees can seem to bring out the worst in gardening writers.  They’re either thumpingly dull and correct, or extraordinarily beautifully photographed and sentimental, with very little helpful information.  Collins Guide is good though.

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. 

Here he is on alders, mainly the common and the grey - or alnus glutinosa and alnus incana.  Occasionally you spot one that might be the Italian alnus cordata, though apart from the large size of the black cones and the greener catkins it's shape is just as distinctively alder-like as the common -  tall and slim with a strangely coniferous look. 

“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.”

Such a complete introduction there.  I mutter “butlers in the chaos” every time I see one, for when they are in full shiny leaf they are clearly recogniseable.  But again, in winter, I'm not so sure of myself from a distance, confusion reigns, other alders masquerade. 

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."

I love that sort of thing and I think that that is what I'm really looking for - a few words that sum up the way a tree looks and grows, to make me feel like I know it, to give it a face I might recognise again, especially stripped bare, for then I would feel I really know it.

You can see I'm not a botanist, nor do I have a very orderly or precise mind.  Words like chambered pith,  and downy impressed stipules, they sound lovely, but I haven't the stamina to make them add up to a picture.  I need a personality to connect to.
Alright, let’s try connecting this theme with Dylan’s song.  It’s mainly to do with structure and engineering. The music starts like a single trunk rising up and suddenly bursting into a full canopy of branches, the voice snaking through. 

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.
But then I saw this tree in Mondovi', and turned my back on the anxiety of the ash, choosing this  instead as the tree of the song. This is one that will astonish Americans, for whom it is a suckering city weed, breaking concrete apart, overbearing and coarse.  But look how graceful, with strength.  It’s the tree of heaven, ailanthus altissima.  Far from a perfect specimen and carrying passengers, it's suffered an early pollarding perhaps, like the limes behind it.  And it's been lopped since, and it's  fought for space throughout its life.  And no-one would now willingly plant a male, for it carries no reddish plumes of flower and tends to smell unpleasant.  But look at it.  What an unreasonable amount of joy it seems to express with its swooping branches, its passionate, rising curlicues. 

Like the song, the tree is full of wintry joys.  Rising, nearly parallel trunks, curling, falling extremities. The theme of the song might be the impossibility of changing your own nature and of resolving conflicts of intimacy and distance.   Nothing to do with the tree perhaps, but an ailanthus must be an ailanthus and they're hard to live with in close and happy harmony.

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. 
And on “Oh You don’t have to go”, he uses a clichéd seduction line which insincerely invites co-operation, which reaches out a hand to the listener – it's a kind of careless confident mastery of gathered bits and pieces of conversation, elements of things people say to each other when things have gone wrong, when intimacy and distance cannot co-exist.  A few words, even stolen words, and you recognise something utterly familiar.
As for the sun, burning some vapid dancing lover’s brains right out – it’s nothing to fear, it's a truth attack, scorching away at the shallow and the pointless.  And the crashed and broken dead enemy?  That seems like someone very close, close enough to form part of the self even.  Now I’m wading into unacceptable speculation.  But I still hear that mix – the sad and bad resolved.  Always that redistancing.
Now, let me tell you something else about that bad but joyful tree, ailanthus altissima.  You won’t start to love it if you already hate it for the trouble it causes you, but something might soften.  Apparently, it produces a kind of sweet substance from glands on the underside of the leaves.  Bees love this and rush to imbibe, according to some reports.  They also certainly enjoy the flowers.  Ants love the leaf nectar too, but I won't focus on that. 
So the tree of heaven reveals itself to be a source of sweetness and generosity.  And then you realise that it grows where literally nothing else could, in cities, on destroyed and poisoned ground.  It bears every climate, most droughts.  It’s a pioneer plant, with a relatively short life-span for individuals although new suckers appear, direct from the roots, in armies.  Then eventually it makes seriously damaged land fit for other trees.  But it overwhelms, it overpowers and it displaces delicate natives from huge tracts of countryside, wherever gaps have appeared.  I cannot argue only, or indeed at all, on its behalf.  If I see it on my land, I'll have it out, quick as a knife.
Here's the female.  Recognise the seed-heads?

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.
This song is not sentimental.  It’s a graceful string of words cataloguing some kinds of misery but concluding with a briskly heart-breaking “so much for tears”.   We catch a glimpse of something stripped bare, we see the long and wasted years but we also see a sort of rebooting, the turning and lifting towards the light.  What more can you do?  What more can you want?  You are what you are and you do what you can do.
All I was hoping for was time and wit enough to learn to tell the trees apart in winter.  But I still can't do that - like the song, they won't simplify themselves.  Shape-shifting, retreating and masquerading, the trees win in the end.  I've enjoyed all the running about, up close one minute, far away the next but I don't think I've achieved much.  Oh well.


  1. Hello again Jane
    Just wanted to say a belated thanks for this post. I felt I learnt such a lot from it, about trees, and about looking and about learning, and learning to be less harsh on ourselves for our imperfections. I was on a long train trip across the English countryside just after I read your writing, and it made the journey a pleasure rather than a chore, as I guessed my way through the beautiful tree skeletons that passed my window.
    As ever your Dylan comments accord with my take on the song. I went back to listen again to that track and found it just as you say, one to return to many times. Surely one of the greatest lyric writers on the understandings of life as we grow older? Thanks also for the recommendation for the book. I will attempt to get that as soon as I can.
    Please keep writing. I may not always get to pen a response, but I am always cheered by the reading.
    Jenny G

  2. What a heartening comment! I'm delighted it made sense to you. You've summed it up so well, and the delights of the older Dylan.

    Thank you very much for making the effort to set down your response to this piece. I was worried it was far too long, so am really glad to get something back. I still find these a great joy to write so I'm sure I'll keep at it anyway but it is lovely to hear something so nice from a kindred spirit.

  3. Well your tree identification in winter is in another league from mine. We came here in winter and I found that I did not know the trees on our land without their leaves so I set to work to recognise trees in winter, which I can now do after a fashion. I now have a fairly reliable eye for the broad differentiation of oak, ash, sycamore, horse chestnut, hawthorn, rowan, wild cherry and silver birch which grow here. I could not begin to identify which variety I am looking at and even in the land around me beyond ours I sometimes find myself stumped. The answer seems generally to be alder. We don't grow limes up here so I am pretty limited to things that might grow on a hillside in North Wales. It will have to do. I love the sound of the Hugh Johnson book and have never seen it so shall do something about that. Thank you.

  4. Not at all, I meant it about how dfficult I find it and I try really hard! Now the leaves will come and we can all move on, at last. Enjoy the book up there on your beautiful hill.

  5. Superb piece. I like the lines 'I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/There are secrets in them I can't disguise.' A nice nod to the public perception of Dylan's classic 1960s look and playing with self-revelation.

    1. Lovely to get your comment, thank you very much.

      And the way he says that bit always makes me smile, every time. For some inexplicable reason it never stales.

  6. Thanks Jane, as a Bob Dylan fan and amateur gardener, your blog is truly superb and inspirational. As Joan Baez said of Bob Dylan, not everybody might get it but if you get it, it goes WAY deep.

  7. And thank you for such a lovely comment. You're quite right, some people find it utterly bewildering, but I'm SO glad about the others!