Touch, for There is a Spirit in the Woods


“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine.”


Zoos showcase animals, of course, and our zoo in Nashville has some wonderful birds and monkeys, fish and meerkats, and kangaroos (that you can pet!). But it also has some interesting plants. Last week at the zoo, the unusual pattern of bark on a tree caught my eye. Fortunately the tree was labeled. It was a lacebark elm.

Seeing the lacebark made me aware of the bark on other trees, mostly those in my own yard. There’s the smooth bark of the Japanese maple.

And the bumpy gray bark of our grandfatherly hackberry.

And the tulip poplar with its thick grayish, ridged bark. (It’s in the magnolia family, and according to fossil leaves found in rocks of Europe and Greenland, tuliptrees were apparently around millions of years ago.) Our tulip poplar looks a bit curmudgeonly – its bark has a definite frowning face.

Then in the far corner of our backyard, there’s the American elm with its beautiful vase shape, which is one of the identifiers of this type of elm (according to my tree book). The bark is deeply furrowed and coarse.

Next to the elm is a row of longleaf pine with their orange-brown, scaly trunks. And beside our porch, there’s a crape myrtle with its bone-smooth, patched trunk that reminds me of the lacebark elm.

I wish we had one of those gorgeous red maples, but there’s one in a yard across the street, so I’m content to enjoy the view. It sends its helicopter seeds spinning into our yard, so who knows? Maybe one day we will have a red maple.

Next to my son’s house is a silver maple, which turns yellow instead of red in the fall. It’s an older tree, so its grayish bark is marked with deep wavy furrows.

This week as I took a close look at all these different types of trees and ran my hands over the bark – smooth, ridged, coarse, scaly – I remembered an activity I used to do with my sons when they were young. We would put a piece of printer paper over a section of a tree trunk and rub over the paper with the side of a crayon to capture the pattern of the bark. It’s pretty amazing that there’s such beauty and wonder in the patterns and textures all around us, just quietly there, waiting for us to notice.

So this week, pause a moment and notice the pattern on the bark of a tree. Catch the dawn’s spill of sunlight as it trickles down the east side of a tree trunk. Or admire the last glow of sunset reddening the west side of a tree as the light fades. And wonder.

“With gentle hand

Touch – for there is a spirit in the woods.”

William Wordsworth, “Nutting”

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Text and photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.