In Praise of Trees

Now comes our time of year when we decorate and pay homage to our dear traveling companions in this life, trees. Cedar, hemlock, fir, the whole great evergreen nation are swept into our collective solstice/holiday craving for light, as nature’s colors dim and the nights comes on early, dark and deep. To me, holiday lights on trees, inside or out, are among the loveliest practices in this, our winter time of celebration.

Here at the Harvard Forest, after what I am told was a long dry spell, we have a tree, cut from our very own woods by John Wisnewski, of the Harvard Forest Woods Crew. 


Our tree in the Common Room at Shaler Hall, cut from the woods at the Harvard Forest and decorated by the staff.

I love this tree. Its soft glow, and home made decorations are just the sort of simple beauty I enjoy and its light through the windows at night is a sight to behold, particularly on snowy nights.

But why only now do we turn to trees to be enthralled? Is their beauty not with us always, and to be held before us daily in ardent gaze? Here is the poet Mary Oliver, in lines sent to me by my editor Kathy Belden at Bloomsbury Publishing, thinking of me out here in the woods. 

The Trees

Do you think of them as decoration?

Think again.

Here are maples, flashing.
And here are the oaks holding on all winter to their dry leaves.
And here are the pines, that will never fail, until death, the instruction to be green.
And here are the willows, the first to pronounce a new year.

May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?
Oh, Lord, how we are all for invention and advancement!
But I think it would do us good if we would think about
These brothers and sisters, quietly and deeply.

The trees, the trees, just holding on to the old, holy ways.

–Mary Oliver

Doesn’t she get it just exactly right? Oliver in customary brilliance nails one of the things we love about trees, not only at this time of year, but always. Their keeping of the old, holy ways. It is their  steadfastness, their hopefulness, and stoic vigor she dials in, and invites us to cherish. 

And so as you enjoy the glimmer of holiday trees, think too of the luminous beech,  bright when all the other trees have passed their fall brilliance.


John O’Keefe, Harvard Forest field phenologist, in the glow of a beech, the last of the trees to lose their color in autumn

Of the fresh spring leaves on a striped maple, so soft to the touch.


The soft new leaves of a striped maple in spring flower.

Think of the wise counsel of a great oak, like the one I am studying this year. 


The red oak that inspired my book in its first flush of leaves, last spring. 

And so give thanks for the trees, with us not only now, aglow in this last breath of this year, but always, worthy of our upswept gaze and rapt appreciation, in all the months and seasons of our lives. This spring cut fresh buds and unfurling branches;  in summer, decorate your home with verdant green boughs. Come fall, bring in the brilliance of autumn’s palette to your house, luminous  as any holiday tree. All winter long there are the spicy hemlock boughs to lay on our windowsills, clip for hot tea, and the cleansing withes of cedar, and long, soft needles of white pine, each ours to enjoy. How lucky are we, for the beauty of trees, every day and month of the year.   

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