Yesterday evening, just as a bitter Arctic front was sweeping over Maine, I went out to the woodpile to stock up for the long night ahead. After gathering my armful of maple, birch, and oak, I turned, and then paused in my tracks. The merest hint of daylight glowed in the west, the stars were beginning to peek through, and the river, white with its dusting of snow, lay frozen. All of this was backlighting for the scene I beheld - my apple trees standing dark, jagged, and bereft of every leaf. It was as if some charcoal artist had seized the moment and sketched them in haste, yet hadn't missed a detail.
I have been looking at trees for years, yet had never seen them so beautiful. It was, of course, that conspiracy of light and cold which rendered them so, and it was serendipity that sent me out for wood at the exact moment of their peak appeal.
I don't know where this arboreal devotion comes from. I grew up in industrial New Jersey. One of the homes my family lived in was wedged neatly between a freight railway and a power plant. And yet I found myself always seeking out those rough patches of urban wilderness: the reedy bank of heavily polluted Newark Bay; the scrub growth along the remnants of the Morris Canal; and the waste places along the margins of that power plant, where a stand of staghorn sumac had established its beachhead - blazing red in autumn - as if to signal, "We are here, still here."
When I moved to Maine I realized that what I enjoyed as subsistence rations of nature in New Jersey existed in abundance here. And the thing I noticed when I first came over the Piscataqua River Bridge on my motorcycle (ah, yes, I once had a motorcycle) were the trees. From the acme of the bridge, Maine spread out before me as a vast green blanket of forest. And nothing struck me so much as the feeling that it was all mine.
To understand what a tree really is, one must see it au naturel, without its cloak of leaves, which hide more than they highlight. As I write this, I look out my window and behold a very old green ash, neatly framed in snow-edged panes. The thing is largely trunk, its branches short, not wandering far from their central support. Only now, with it standing bare, can I see how the ash lists at midtrunk, the result of the burden of ice it bore during the devastating winter storm of 1998. Roofs collapsed, power lines came down, and vehicles skidded off the road. All those things have been corrected, but this ash still lists, still bears its battle scar. There's history there.
Silver maples, self-seeded, sprout all along the Penobscot River behind my home. They arise, multitrunked, from the ground like immense woody bouquets with broad crests, and I realize that what I see aboveground is reflected underground as an extensive root system.
In the summer they are lovely, their pendulous branches sweeping the earth under the weight of their leaves; but in winter they are lovelier still, their clusters of trunks fanning, and tapering, ever upwards, as if the sky were the limit (which, of course, it is). And every so often there's a tree that goes every which way in its joints, as if it just doesn't know what to do. When a silver maple is covered with leaves I am denied the pleasure of watching it try to make up its mind.
Despite the intriguing profiles and habits of the green ash and silver maple, the sumac and hornbeam - and that perennial underdog of a tree, the wild cherry (always growing at roadcuts and other marginal settings, never the central act) - I am partial to apples.
Barbara Damrosch, in her classic book, "The Garden Primer" (1988), pays the requisite homage to the glory of apples, but also says, "their enormous popularity is a result of their usefulness, not their beauty."
For me, it is different. I pick the occasional apple to eat out of hand, but I don't gather the fruits of my cortlands and wealthys en masse.
The real drama, I think, lies not in the harvest, but in late autumn, when the trees drop their leaves as if to proclaim: "Ta-daa!" And I immediately see that something else Damrosch said about apples is absolutely true, that "apple trees look their best when they are old."
This is what I apprehended last night, when I turned from the woodpile to behold my backlit apple trees, standing like codgers, bent here and there, but proud. How good it is to live in a cold place, and how good (temporarily, at least) that this Arctic blast puts a sort of imprimatur on the coldness. For without it the trees, these apples, would never show their all.
In fact, warmth in winter is the greater threat, for a tree partly awakened from sleep is defenseless against the inevitable return of frigid weather.
Robert Frost knew this when he wrote, in "Good-Bye and Keep Cold," that "No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm/ But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm."
No chance of that tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day. There is, for me, no better excuse to go out for wood than the sight of trees in winter.