The How and Why Library/Trees/Section IV

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IV. Winter: "The Cradles Will Rock"[edit]

Who says there is no use in going to the forests again until spring? What a funny mistake! It's worth while going if only for the pictures in black and white. Many people, who know a great deal about art, like black and white pictures best. They like drawings in crayon, charcoal and ink; prints from etched plates, and fine photographs. The woods, in winter, against gray skies and snowy earth, are delicate etchings. The boy with a kodak, then, is lucky. He can make a whole album of pictures.

Every tree has a character of its own, just as every person has. Don't you know the members of your family and many friends by the way they stand and sit, and carry their heads, and swing their arms when walking? You don't always need to see their faces. You can learn to know trees in that way, too. Their character seems to come out more sharply when they have no soft, colored drapery of leaves to hide them.

The oak tree looks as if its shape was wrought of iron. No two oaks are alike, but all look as if hammered out on some giant forge. Its stout trunk, covered with deeply furrowed black bark, is rooted like a rock. Often it is buttressed, or braced, by great ridges that slope away to outstanding roots. It supports a great weight of thick limbs, irregular and crooked. Clear up to the knotted twigs, and tough brown leaves that often hang on all winter, the oak has a stubborn look. It dares the winter winds to do their worst. And it looks so old, so wise, such a scarred hero of a thousand fights. The old Norse sea kings and the brave English once worshiped the oak tree. It gave them ship timbers that could stand the strain of wind and waves. Many ancient peoples thought dryads, or wood spirits, lived in oak trees.

The elm tree was believed to bless and protect a church or household. There have been many wonder stories written about the elm. It's black trunk, with the bark in deep, vertical ridges, often springs forty feet in the air, straight as a pine, before it branches. Then, from the top, the long limbs sweep, like plumes from a vase. A double row of them makes a high arch across a very wide street. It was often planted for a lucky birth tree when a baby was born. The baby grew up before the elm did, but the tree lived long afterhe was gone. His children and grandchildren played under it while it was still a young tree. Elms and oaks often live for two or three hundred years and get their names into history. (See Elm.)

Isn't it wonderful that trees keep a record of their birthdays? Every year's growth is a thin layer of green that, as it hardens into wood, is plainly marked in a ring. The rings are bound together with rays like wheel spokes. When lumber is sawed and polished, the ring and ray marks come out in wavy lines, in delicate pencilings, in curls and "eyes," and color bands, very true to type in nearly all trees. So, in a chair or floor or door casing, you can learn to know the different woods. Grown people know many of these woods in houses and furniture. They know just what each kind of tree is good for.

The Indians knew a great deal about woods, although they could not cut down trees. "Give me of your bark, oh birch tree," sang Hiawatha. He wanted the white, unbroken bark of the big, paper birch tree to cover his canoe with. "Give me of your wood, oh ash tree," he sang. He used the tough saplings of the white ash for the frame of his canoe and for his hunting bow. He knew the best firewoods, too. He knew that a hard beech log would hold fire all night, that birch splinters made the best kindling, that pine-knots blazed up for story telling, that wild apple wood glowed with rosy flames like its own pink blossoms.

But we are forgetting our winter pictures in black and white. There are other trees with white, or silvery gray bark as well as the birches. Some willows and poplars, the silver maple and the sycamore, a kind of maple or plane tree, have them. And one birch has a yellow bark. You can always tell the birches in winter by the short, brown or dark gray cross-markings on the bark, and by the slender branches and twigs. The willows have many small, drooping twigs but large branches. They often have long, horizontal roots that push the earth up in ridges, and a little forest of switch-like shoots around their feet. The poplars are much like the willows, but their branches are more erect, often growing in so close to the shaft-like trunk as to make these the slenderest trees, except the pines. Switch-like shoots grow about the poplars, and even on the trunks.

In the winter the bark of orchard fruit trees are warm reds and browns and purplish grays, very bright and clean, like wild rose canes. The trunk of an old apple tree may be gray and scaly, butthe higher branches and twigs are bright. It has a low, rounded head. Its stout branches spring from a short trunk, making that comfortable "crotch" where you like to sit with a story book in the summer. The crabapple is small, thorny, flat-topped, a twisted witch of a tree. The pear is tall, slim, with a few thick limbs growing upward and close together. The cherry is wine-red. Its outer bark easily peels in circular bands.

The black walnut tree has a towering trunk that branches high in a beautiful crown. Its bark is as black as the oak and elm, and sharply ridged like the shell of its nut. The butternut or white walnut has a grayish bark and high, horizontal branches. The hickory is a tall, spreading tree with a gray bark that breaks away in long strips. For this reason it is often called the shag bark. The twigs are a warm, yellowish brown, with big varnished leaf buds.

The beech tree has low-hung, wide, spreading branches. Its trunk is a smooth bluish-gray column. Nothing that grows under the beech gets enough sunlight, so the ground is often quite bare. The beech, too, like many heavy trees, braces itself with horizontal roots. It is the best umbrella in the world, in a storm, and it is thought to be the safest shelter, for it is seldom or never struck by lightning.

Bare maples are always graceful. The rock maple is a sturdy, compact tree, with its smooth trunk and rounded head. The red maple has a free, bold way of branching like its five-notched leaf.

Winter is the time of the year for finding bird's nests, for the owners no longer need them. The oriole often hangs its purse of a nest, seventy-five feet in the air, from the limb of an elm. Robins and blue birds are fond of apple trees and maples. Little wood owls like the hollows of oaks. The crow picks out a lofty perch in a cotton-wood or pine tree to survey this interesting world. You can find holes the woodpeckers have drilled to drag out grubs, and cocoons tucked away in the ridges of the bark. They hold the baby "butterflies waiting for spring. You can tell, too, if a tree is injured or dying. Fungi, or toad stool growths of white or orange fluted ridges, creeping thread moulds, and dry rot around hollows, mean trouble, and decay.

Sometimes, when the Indian boy lay in his wigwam, on a still, cold, winter night, he heard the trees crack. He could not have known what had happened. But now, when sound trees are cut up for lumber, they are often found cracked, across the middle or arounda growth ring. The frost does not harm the smallest leaf-bud baby in its cradle, but it often grips and breaks the hearts of big trees.

Winter is the best time for studying the cone-bearers. Perhaps you call all of these trees pines. Many people do. Only one of their family is a pine, and you would never pick that one out for a Christmas tree. It has long, stiff, needle-like leaves that grow in clusters of from two to five. The clusters grow so close together that they spread in fan-like sprays. The pines, of which there are several varieties, have upright cones of thick, over-lapping, woody scales.

Pines, spruces, firs and hemlocks are alike in having cones and needle-like leaves. Most of them have tall, tapering stems, like ships' masts and telegraph poles. The spruces and firs make the prettiest Christmas trees. The spruce has inch-long needles that bristle all around the stem. In the fir, the needles are flat. They grow on only two sides of the stem, and they slant upward. Sometimes the under side of the leaves are pale and shining. Then it is called the silver fir. The cones of the two trees are much alike, long, slender, with thin, close-set scales. But the spruce cone droops, while the fir cone stands erect. Hemlock needles are short and flat, too, but they lie straight out like the fronds of a feather. The hemlock cones are shorter, with bristling, parted scales. All of these trees have a spicy, balsam-like smell that is very pleasant.

The cedars are very different from the needle-leafed trees. The tiny, flattened, or spiny leaves overlap each other, making scaly or mossy stems. The flat-leafed arbor vitae trees and shrubs are cedars. So are the round-stemmed cypresses, the junipers with their purple berries instead of cones, the gnarly yew-trees with their red or violet seed berries, and the giant redwoods of California. Much like the cedars are the club-mossed larches or tamaracks, that grow in swampy places. Some of the larches and cypresses drop their leaves in the fall.

The cone-bearers put out new leaves in the spring, after their blossoms, dropping the leaves from the older, inner parts of the tree, leaving them quite bare, and strewing the ground with brown needles. All the branches and twigs are tipped with tender green tassels of new leaves. Away up on the tip of the tallest pine is a long green feather. The Indians have a wonder story about that. When a young chief was turned into a pine tree by some bit of magic, he was allowed to keep his eagle feather.

There the feathered tip of the pine waves proudly today, above all the trees of the forest.