The Skeletons of Trees
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
There is something special about trees in winter. The skeletal frames are one of the most distinctive characteristics of the British winter landscape. While the evergreen conifers may dominate the Christmas season, it is what remains of the woodlands that define the coldest months for most of us.
The lonely beauty of a single leafless outline on a snow-covered hillside against a matt grey sky; the creaking of empty boughs as we are walking underneath; distant treetops swaying in the wind at the further end of the field.
On winter walks in the countryside you’ll rarely catch me looking where I’m going: if I’m not crouching or crawling around in the underground in search of mushrooms, I’ll have my face turned towards the sky, admiring the gothic architecture of the soaring trunks and arching branches of the trees.
There is something both imposing and vulnerable about trees in winter. While I tell myself that the shedding of leaves is a process some of these plants have been repeating every autumn for hundreds of years, looking at the bare boughs gives me a feeling like looking at the noble ruins of a long-abandoned castle or monastery.
Despite appearances, of course, the skeletal shapes of winter trees are anything but dead. Throughout the harshest months, they remain dormant. Beneath the surface of the bark, life continues; if perhaps at a slightly slower pace than usual. Far from being vast ruined cathedrals, they are more like Sleeping Beauty's castle: paused in motion, awaiting the first warmth of spring.
Trees hibernate in winter, and slowly adapt to the cold: hormones at the tips of branches suppress growth, and cause the leaves of deciduous trees to fall; individual cells within the tree radically alter to protect themselves from freezing; nutrients collected throughout the autumn is being primed for use in the spring.
But for me, the real beauty of winter trees lies not simply with either the autumn they have just left, nor the spring to come, but in their present state: majestic in austerity, unpretentious in extravagant detail. Without the distraction of leaves, it's easier to see the intricate filigree of twigs against the sky, as well as the texture of the bark - ranging from the craggy surface of an aged pine, via the papery tautness of a silver birch, to the almost-alien smoothness of a sheltered fig.
So, while I lamented the loss of every fallen autumnal leaf, and will celebrate the appearance of the first vigorous spring leaves, it is always this season, when the trees are at their most exposed and sincere, that I find myself most eager to get outside, whatever the weather.