Come winter, I love to drive the rural backroads, savoring the revealed landscape. Late afternoon is my favorite time.
My preferred direction — for reasons I’m mostly at loss to explain — is west, into either side of the borderlands on the dividing line between Ohio and Indiana. Flat country, for the most part, with an occasional low undulation leading down and up from the bridges which cross the willow-fringed network of brooks and small creeks.
Farms in this sector are sprawling. Sometimes I travel as much as a mile between houses. Most of these homes are well-kept, recently painted, looking as sound as the day they were built — though, judging by their architecture, that initial construction might have occurred a century ago.
Only a few homes show neglect; fewer still sit abandoned. Regarding these empty structures, you have to wonder about their backstory. What happened? Failed crops? Ill-timed weather? Did someone get sick or hurt? What prevented anew owners from coming along and taking over?
I don’t suppose it matters. The now fallow fields and overgrown woodlots are still rendered beautiful by the afternoon’s lambent overlay. As are last year’s stubble fields, and the gentle swales where I occasionally see whitetails nosing amid the sere grasses.
Late afternoon hereabouts is a magical time. The lowering sidelight from the westering sun is laced with warm, fire-tinged hues — gold and orange, salmon and vermillion. Yet the sky is darkening and cold — blue and pewter, purple and steel.
It’s this dramatic contrast, the unmixing juxtaposition, that I find so interesting — so compelling.
The woods are open, skeletal. Backlit tree trunks become bold vertical lines, rich and black. The starkness of these silhouetted trees when transformed by the pale overwash of colors, is incredibly lovely. A muted Midwestern scene oddly reminiscent of a Chinese watercolor.
Trees have been called linear sculptures. I know that during winter, I always pay close attention to trees as objects of form. I look at their lines, their overall shape, and if the light is right, their bark color and texture.
Trees develop and grow both as individual specimens, and species specifically. Each has their particular needs regarding sunlight, which furnishes the energy source for photosynthesis.
Without the sun, there would be no green plants — no grass, weeds, wildflowers, bushes … no trees. Light gives life.
This life-giving sunlight is gathered via a tree’s leaves. Scrutinize trees close enough and you’ll realize each species does this basic job in a slightly different manner.
But paradoxically, the best time to study a tree’s growth characteristics—both their singular, unique shape, and the branches which, from spring into autumn will hold the season’s leaves — is now, during the winter, when no leaves obstruct your view.
As a rule of thumb, the biggest, strongest trees generally require the most sunlight. Oaks need more than box elders, sycamores more than hackberries. Some trees such as pawpaws and redbuds prefer shade.
Of course soil, moisture, drainage, prevailing winds, and any number of similar factors effect growth.
The same 100-year-old white oak grown in a dense woods, farmland woodlot, and the middle of an open field will look notably different. The immediate environment and any nearby competition influences overall shape as well as growth patterns.
I get a kick out of driving along a winter-lit road and trying to identify trees at a distance via their shape.
When I was a kid, my father and I often played a game. Dad was an excellent field botanist in any season, but he was especially adapt at driving along a wintry road and identifying trees — often at astonishing distances. Just a glance at their overall shape and limb arrangement was all he needed.
Whenever I boldly presumed to challenge one of his identifications, Dad would grin and immediately park the car. Then we’d mosey over for an up-close view.
“See there, Sonny,” he’d say, blue eyes sparkling with mirth. “I told you it was a sweet gum.”
In my late teens I decided to up the competition level and acquired a couple of serious fields guides. I insisted on keying trees in question down to the species level.
Maybe I could declare an occasional victory by default.
Nope. If Dad claimed that fencerow tree two-hundred yards away was a black oak, there was no chance we’d trek over and find a white oak instead.
Frankly, I don’t ever remember catching Dad in the wrong. And though I’m way better at bare-tree identification than I used to be, I’m still not anywhere close to my father’s level of expertise.
Definitely not a chip off the ol’ block … at best a few shavings and a handful of sawdust.
But one winter tree fact which Dad passed along, and one I think of often during these backroad drives, is this:
Those new green leaves which we’ll see unfurling in April and May are already formed — neatly miniaturized and hidden within the tree’s scale-covered buds.
Right there, right now … spring is waiting.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at email@example.com