How Trees Affect the Inner Self

      The study of trees is a journey along many avenues, leading us to that gate which is both the first and the last – the psychological impact of size – how do trees affect our inner selves?  It’s a wonderful subject, but I hesitate to enter, for it is not something to be taught, but something to be experienced, being the product of our own personal perceptions and expectations.  Having said that, perhaps I can share some impressions, which taken together, may strike some common chord.

     In winter, the silhouette of distant bare trees against the even glow of sunset is pleasing, but our attention is drawn to some great cluster of limbs, divergent, higher and denser than all its neighbors.  Perhaps it is a single tree, perhaps several, perhaps the country seat of some family, now forgotten.  It prompts many questions.  Above all, it dominates the landscape.

     Yes, size is comparative; it dominates, it must have the right presentation, and it must affect our experience and our curiosity.  Dominance can be more; it can border on intimidation.  In the movie, “Dr. Zhivago,” when Yuri bursts out of the woods and sees the locomotive, that is size, and it is intimidating.  This is simply to say that different individual trees affect us differently, because we feel that each has a different aura – a different character.

     Tuliptrees are large, but they are as benign as their spring foliage – a green so fine, that were it blue, it would be the sky.  White oaks are stately, trees of history, but approachable.  Black oaks are big and rough, coarse, uncultured, but completely honest.  Sycamores are cold, self-centered, boorish, with no refinements – in short, unfriendly.  Such feelings affect how we perceive the size of individual trees.

     The trunk of a great tree inspires awe; it is like a silo; nearby trees become insignificant.  To do this, it must do more than stand on a big stump.  It must hold its size as it goes up.  In so doing, it is overpowering, like a locomotive.  The silvery trunks of great chestnuts did this.  There was no crown, and it was not needed.  To walk through the woods in the moonlight, among those ancient monuments, was awe-inspiring.

     Is it mass that is so dominating, or is it all silhouette?  Perhaps the latter is the impact on our animal minds, and mass just the product of education.  No matter.  If a large trunk forks repeatedly, so that a great concentration of wood occupies much space, it affects us.  Though our eyes seek to find their way through, all attention returns to wood.  But it is bark – so much of it – which we see.  Bark, by its texture, creates feeling.  An old white oak limb, endowed with broad overlapping shingles of bark, two hundred years old, commands respect.

     So, respect can be part of size.  Perhaps trees with large basal hollows seem larger.  The silhouette may be the same, but these trunks can surround you, demonstrating their size benignly, yet overpoweringly.  And we respect them; no hint of commercial value can enter into it; we respect them for themselves.

     Of course, presentation is essential, like art galleries, with walls, lighting and frames.  While seeing a great-crowned tree at a distance is one thing, approaching it gradually diminishes impact.  It must come upon us, like Yuri and the locomotive.  We may know the tree is there, but to be suddenly confronted by its size has maximum impact.  I often would stop my truck by a pasture fence, in the shade of a large oak, and suggest that some new employee hop over the fence and see how large the tree was.  Most were, at that point, unimpressed, but obeyed.  When suddenly confronted by a cylinder thirty feet in girth, they were, without exception, completely overwhelmed.

      Height does not always have the same impact.  It has less impact on our animal minds.  In tall groves there may be an expanse of empty space, and the play of sunlight.  This evokes comparisons to cathedrals, which are surely awe-inspiring, so there is less of the primal, more of the artistic.   More difficult is how we perceive the individual tree.  To follow the broad orange-brown bark plates of a pine gradually upward to a green focal point may be a long visual journey, and we are impressed.  In the case of a tuliptree, there are no orange plates, but the journey does not stop so abruptly, and more trunk may be above – and we strain to see it, still expecting another path leading upward.  Thus height becomes a journey of anticipation and hope.  The more stations the train reaches, and yet continues, the greater the sense of distance.

     Of course, a tree approached from downhill has the presentation advantage of being elevated – like the Statue of Liberty.  Perhaps equally effective is the act of climbing, of physical effort – to reach even the lowest part of something larger than ourselves.  This is where the sense of height takes on the aspects of dominance and even intimidation.

     The matter of spread is different.  Although, in my first example, the dominance of oak limbs against an evening sky concerns the crown of the tree, the effect comes from the visual density of standing wood.  From under a tree, a great leafy umbrella may be cool and inviting, and if large enough, noteworthy.  Our recognition of size seems to come from a visual calculation of the distances and enclosed space involved, not from any psychological effect different from that of a more modest tree.  Individual limbs, if heavy and horizontal, may inspire awe, but much less so if they rise at an angle.

     In summer, spread is welcome and inviting.  In winter, it is all different, and a low spreading crown impresses us with its innumerable branches, limbs and twigs, all competing for our attention, so that the winter sky is forgotten, and only the cold wind intervenes.  The rougher the bark, and the more thoroughly the limbs are clothed in small twigs, the greater the impact.

     Bare sycamores, like red maples and beeches, long for a blue winter sky; or better, for a dark ominous sky as a cold front approaches, and sunlight still illumines their structure.  Sycamores are the thing of Victorian oil landscapes, with cattle and horses standing by broad rocks and gentle brooks.  It is all light and color; size has no part in it.

     Our perception of tree size can be focused downward, where twisted roots are the inspiration of storybook illustrators.  Beechen roots, and trunks, short, twisted and well twigged, are the stuff of enchantment, with elves and pixies galore.  It is the twigged trunk that holds our attention downward.  There is a painting of skirmishers in the Battle of the Wilderness - a man firing from the base of an old white oak, and a dead limb holds our attention downward, to the deadly thickets.

     So, finally, tree size comes down to what we are, ourselves.  Hopefully, there is a bit of the child still in us.  In the woods, we may recapture some of that world, where most trees seem huge, with contours like storybooks, thick-barked and ancient, and there is still the shadow of the unknown.  Great trees can bring this back, and we may be both intimidated and enchanted.

Colby Rucker