For the Love of Trees in April

They’re changing costumes like mad!

It’s that particular week of spring when daily tree-watching pays off again and again, in either surprising or perfectly predictable ways: the week the trees bud out.

“It wore that yard like a dress.”

I often note, on winter walks, how much more you can see with the leaves gone for the season. What trails have vistas invisible in summer. What neighbors have swimming pools tastefully tucked far from the road. How much shade and privacy trees provide.

This week in mid-April, with few exceptions, they’re either covered with buds, or the buds are bursting open, or mini-leaves are already visible. The willows are bright with pale green hair. The forsythia, forget about it.

What looks to the sun-washed eye in summer like a grove of more or less identical trees can be quite different these weeks the buds and flowers are out: “Where did that stray fruit tree come from?” “This one’s buds are a different shade of red.”

Seeing trees in starring roles always reminds me of Marie Howe’s poem “The Copper Beech,” from her book What the Living Do. It has an opening line as memorable as “I sing the body electric” or others for the ages:

“Immense, entirely itself,

it wore that yard like a dress…”

Iambic tetrameter with a surprising punch at the end: Im-MENSE, en-TI-re-LY it-SELF / it WORE that YARD LIKE a DRESS. The meter trips on itself as it delivers the surprising metaphor. Sure, some trees, like some people, are entirely themselves, but to compare its relationship to the house and yard to a lady wearing a dress, that’s poetry.

The tree is in control. The tree is on the red carpet. The tree is dressed for an occasion, and we are its accessories.

I have a dear friend from Britain who’s gone native here in the Hudson valley, but still pronounces forsythia as if it has a scythe in it: for-SIGH-thee-uh. (North Americans generally say it as if the second syllable rhymes with “pith.”)

Thinking of him during one morning walk, I kept muttering “That’s a Greek word!” every time I saw a forsythia, a joke repeated throughout My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You can be a naturalist-poet, after all, and still have a brain that’s a boiling mess of pop cultural references – or at least I will die trying. But why did this “Greek word” not keep the tell-tale ph- at the beginning?

I looked it up, and how wrong I was. Forsythia is named for the 17th Century Scottish botanist William Forsyth, who was a chief gardener during the aristocracy’s manic investment in giant gardens that showcased plants from all over the empire and beyond (Forsythia from Asia.). This incidentally would have been a full generation before the English started walking the mountains around me in search of Douglas firs – which are named for another Scottish-born botanist. Now here we all are, getting worn by these gorgeous plants.


  1. Priscilla Bath says:

    Hi Charles, I responded in the comment box but i do not think it sent. This is my comment:

    My family moved from Illinois to NJ in the 40ies when i was entering sixth grade in the Hamilton Square School. My mother always pronounced the plant for SYTH i a. It was hard for her to say for SITH i a as the NJ people do.

    Sent from my iPad


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