Column: Finding beauty, and yourself, in a tree

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | Nature columnist Jason Shields looks at trees this winter and remembers other seasons of his life.

Here we are again, smack dab in the middle of winter, the holidays a fading memory giving way to the stark reality that spring is months away. The trees are simply upright sticks of varying diameters, devoid of anything supple and soft and green. When the wind blows during our intermittent cold snaps it seems they are shivering with shoulders shrugged. And those are the lucky ones, the trees that survived the rash of storms we’ve had the past few years. Our landfill holds the remains of those that perished.

In this unadorned state I can see all the blemishes of the trees in my yard and I worry about their overall health. This is when I come up with a game plan for preventative pruning, some of which I can do myself, while the rest requires an expert.

On the other side of the fence stands a whole forest of wild trees that have never felt the teeth of a pruning saw. The large, grand oaks, hickories and chestnuts overcame choking vines, bugs and lack of light as saplings to reach skyward past the canopies of surrounding trees. Around them the little ones are vying for their shot at longevity, spurting awkwardly in zigzag paths away from muted translucence toward expanses of sunlight.

As a young boy in Brooklyn, I found a tree did in fact grow there. It was a little more than half way down my block, toward 15th Avenue. But hurricane Belle came along in 1976 and knocked it down. Shortly thereafter we moved to Shelter Island where I found no shortage of trees.

Instinctually, I climbed the first one I could, a big conifer that grew alongside the small house we were renting on Gardiner’s Creek. Nestling in a crotch 10 or so feet from the ground, I reclined in my shaded haven and soaked up a perspective I was experiencing for the first time in my life. I also soaked up some pine resin with my shirt and pants, presenting my mother with a whole new laundering problem.

Throughout the years, I climbed my share of trees — pines mostly, because they are the easiest. One in particular comes to mind. It grew  in Sachem’s Woods, a swath of forest on Shelter Island just off the main road and a 5-minute walk from the school. The tree was stationed just about dead center in Sachem’s, out of sight of any road, backyard or other evidence of civilization. And if you were agile and courageous enough, you could reach the top and peer over the maples and oaks surrounding it. It was a refuge for me and my friends, so far removed from school and the town and chores waiting for us at home. We might as well have been pioneers in the Rockies scouting elk herds. The climb back down seemingly always was done reluctantly.

Another tree I found great pleasure in climbing was a meticulously manicured beech tree that resided on the back lawn of a large, old Island estate. This tree was immense, its canopy spread a good 40 feet in diameter and although it wasn’t the tallest tree around, it was by far the easiest to negotiate. In the summer, I would pierce the outermost branches, which were heavy with leaves and touching the ground, to enter a magical dome. The atmosphere inside was soothing as breezes stirred the leaves and shifted the dappled impressions of light.

In fall, the beech’s leaves would turn golden yellow and become crisp. Sunlight reflecting off and refracting through the thin membranes created a supernatural glow inside the dome, a brilliance that would make any Hollywood special effects guru envious. And the leaves would rustle in the wind, exciting another sense in the body of a boy alone in his tree world. I spent hours in that tree, sometimes waiting until the pitch of my mother’s summoning approached panic. I would peek out from the curtain of beech leaves and answer, and then retreat inside for a few minutes more to savor the feeling of being alone with nature.

I’m no tree hugger — if by definition that means one who does not harm trees for any reason. I’ve cut and split my share of firewood, cut down trees for a wage, removed them from my and family members’ properties and helped clear sections of land entirely to prepare for house construction. Christmases past my father and I would cut cedar trees on the causeway to plunk down in our living room and dress.

When I was eight, I took an axe from the carriage house and dismembered a beautiful pine tree in the yard of that same estate where the beech tree grew. In true George Washington fashion, I answered “yes” when asked if I had cut the limb from that tree.

And I felt remorseful after answering “I don’t know” after being asked why I had done it.

I still revere trees as I did when I was a child. As a carpenter, I appreciate the functionality of wood, though our appetite for it has resulted in unsustainable harvesting and a diminished quality. Awareness has spawned reforesting and a burgeoning composite material for a lumber industry that should take some of the strain off the world’s forests. Of course, that is only if these alternatives are more profitable.

For the time being, I’ll just appreciate the trees around me. Throughout my life they’ve been a source of wonder and inspiration. They’ve provided a haven, an escape from the mundane world of bipedal ground dwellers. Whether you believe in evolution, creation or intelligent design, you cannot ignore the divine beauty of a tree.