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Spring is late this year, and I’m impatient for any reward (maybe a daffodil, please?) after our unusually cold winter. Just when I’d mastered the art of curating plant material to endure our brutal Austin summers, I have to rethink those choices, such as succulents and cacti, that refuse a real winter. Which reminds me of the first essay I wrote about my gardening life. I published “Naked Trees” in the Texas Observer in February 2003. That year, I was, ironically, lamenting the advent of Spring:
It’s the surest signal of spring, the trees leafing out. The first flush of bulbs–the daffodils, the narcissus–may murmur “spring” in small, private encounters, but the green fringe and purple halos of budding trees create a public spectacle. They are like parkway banners spanning four lanes, proclaiming that “SPRING IS HERE.”
I welcome the season with as much joy as anyone, and yet I suffer a hesitation. As the trees regain their verdant cloaks, I realize–I’ll miss the naked trees.
The lurking danger, however, is the desire to prune. For a writer, already weakened by the compulsion to edit, the temptation is irresistible.
I love the unadorned forms of trees, how insistently trunks make their way skyward and how limbs and branches create such intricate shapes and enclosures. In winter, you can’t forget that trees are sculpture, disguised as they are in the warmer months by so much froth and frippery.
I am awed by the ramrod spine of an oak, and by the perfect goblet of a bald cypress. I notice if a tree’s posture is erect or bowed, its shape slim or round, its proportions squat or soaring. I wonder what forces have caused a tree to lean (What is it shying away from, or where is it running off to?) Trees have their habits: some branch broadly, arms spread wide; some swing pendulously; some arch gracefully and others gnarl painfully. From one species to the next, the branching is more or less regular, but no more or less beautiful.
Leaves distract me from the seductive texture of bark. In winter I’m more apt to reach out and run my fingers along a trunk, as I do in a fabric store, feeling for the “hand” of a bolt of cloth. If mountain laurel is like a nubby wool, its bark deeply ridged, crape myrtle is silky smooth and Chinese elm a fine lace. The bark of a red cedar is shreddy, and a Texas persimmon keeps itself smooth with regular exfoliation.
Without leaves to serve as concealer, bare trees display all their flaws and wrinkles. As with people, each tree becomes that much more particular and compelling. In the twists and turns of the branches, their runty spots and luxuriant extension, you can literally read the years of hardship and plenty.
The silhouette of a naked tree is more dramatic against the sky, too. I’m reminded of choreographer George Balanchine, who preferred skinny dancers. Better to see their lines, he explained.
The best thing about my house is the wide, mural-shaped window in the bedroom. Opening my eyes at first light. I behold my own private Pollock, the backlit branches of the backyard’s treescape like tangled skeins of paint.
At first, it’s a bit of a trick to shift your perception, to focus on the structure beneath the canopy, but the payoff is big. All the world becomes your art gallery. The lurking danger, however, is the desire to prune. For a writer, already weakened by the compulsion to edit, the temptation is irresistible.
Before being trained properly, I managed to ruin a young tree with an overzealous pruning. When an arborist saw the results, he advised that the poor thing would remain so mangled that it wasn’t worth keeping. Since the tree had been an anniversary present for a marriage that had become mangled beyond repair, I could admit some poetic irony, if not justice.
For crape murder there is no justification. You see it everywhere in Austin: rows of crape myrtles that have been sheared straight across. The buzz cut may look neat and orderly now, but the tree’s long, graceful gesture has been destroyed forever. I understand, of course that the beauty of a tree is incomplete without its foliage. Even so, I’ll not lament the falling leaves come next winter. I’ll take up the rake with pleasure.