“Eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies.”
There is something about the skeletal splendor of winter trees — so vascular, so axonal, so pulmonary — that fills the lung of life with a special atmosphere of aliveness. Something beyond the knowledge that wintering is the root of trees’ resilience, beyond the revelation of their fractal nature and how it salves the soul with its geometry of grief. It is something that makes you humble to see the most beautiful, rawest face of the elemental.
There is no person who captures that unique enchantment more than an artist, naturalist philosopher, entomologist and educator. Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930).
Comstock wrote an article to the magazine in 1902, nine year before she established the cultural foundations of what we now refer as youth climate action. Country LifeThat was fourteen years after her tender, thin book Trees at Leisure, which became, 14 years later, a love letter for the science, beauty, and spiritual rewards that our branched, root chaperones brought to us.| public domain) — a love letter to the science, splendor, and spiritual rewards of our barked, branched, rooted chaperones of being.
A century before Ursula K. Le Guin so mightily unsexed the universal pronoun, Comstock considers the role trees have played in “the aesthetic education of man” since the dawn of evolutionary time and writes:
Ages may have passed before man gained sufficient mental stature to pay admiring tribute to the tree standing in all the glory of its full leafage, shimmering in the sunlight, making its myriad bows to the restless winds; but eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies, which is the tree-lover’s full heritage.
Noting that “the mortal who has never enjoyed a speaking acquaintance with some individual tree is to be pitied,” for a tree “brings serene comfort to the human heart,” Comstock celebrates winter as the season that welcomes the most intimate connection between the human heart and trees:
Our trees are often viewed as cold, barren, and depressing in winter. So we ask that they wait to be re-covered with verdure before we give them our comradeship. It is in winter that the tree can be seen at its most vulnerable, ready and willing to confide all it loves to anyone who will listen. The tree is merely a casual acquaintance, whose identity depends on the attire worn half of the year. Those who are familiar with them know that the winter season brings out more personality in trees than the summer. The summer is the tree’s period of reticence, when, behind its mysterious veil of green, it is so busy with its own life processes that it has no time for confidences, and may only now and then fling us a friendly greeting.
Comstock believes winter is the most suitable time to learn how trees are different from one another. How to discern, and inevitably fall in love with, different species — the sycamore, with its “great undulating, serpent-like branches, blotched with white”; the golden osier willow, with its “magnificent trunk and giant limbs upholding a mass of terminal shoots that tinge with warm ocher the winter landscape”; the apple, with its “maze of twigs” and its “great twisted branches making picturesque any scene” — is what Comstock explores throughout the rest of her sapling-sized, sequoia-spirited Trees at Leisure.
Complement it with Trees at Night — a playful, poignant meditation on our relationship to trees, painted by the cartoonist Art Young in the final years of Anna Botsford Comstock’s life — and Paul Klee, writing in the same era, on why an artist is like a tree, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s love poem to trees and Rilke on winter as the season for tending to your inner garden.
For a different portal into growing more intimate with trees, explore Italian artist, designer, futurist, and inventor Bruno Munari’s uncommon vintage gem Drawing a Tree. For pure joy, enjoy Women in Trees.
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Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
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