Tree Rings

A cut through a large branch shows the yearly measures of growth. These rings have distinct colors, subtle patterns of orange, gold, and brown, not unlike the colors in the earth. Weather patterns determine this color and thickness. Years of rain and abundant growth produce thicker rings; narrow rings indicate a year of less growth. Colors reflect the changes during one growing season. Light shades indicate spring's rapid growth and darker colors mirror the late season's slowing down.

However, yearly weather patterns and the age of a tree are not the only information that can be found in the rings. When a branch is under stress because too much weight is pressing it towards the ground, the underside will bolster itself, like developing a triceps muscle. When you look at the cross-section of that branch, the rings on the underside are thicker and produce an oval shape. The branch bulked up to support the extra pressure.

Often people ask about the hollows found in old apple trees as well as other hard woods. The trees grow even when the center of the trunk is completely gone. What happened to this center and how does the tree still grow? A forester explained it to me this way. Trees have a two-cell thick cambium layer below the bark. This microscopic layer contains all the growing potential of the tree, generating new bark with the outer cells and new wood with the inner cells. A tree attacked by an invading fungus has to defend itself. The tree can’t move away and it can’t wipe out the fungus. However, when the tree senses this alien presence, the cells that normally produce wood create instead a thin layer as impassable as the Great Wall of China. This new layer separates the fungus from any future growth of the tree. Wood and bark then continue to grow isolated from the diseased center, in effect saying to the fungus, “Take this part of me, I surrender.”  For once these walls of demarcation are established, both tree and fungus thrive.

When a tree is bruised from outside like from a car crash, the tree grows a ‘harp’ shape to protect itself from this external injury. From both directions the tree grows inward sealing itself off from the wound. A few years ago, the caretaker of Walden Woods in Concord, who knew about my interest in ‘tree harps’ called and said there was a chunk of wood that he had pulled aside for me. “If you don't want it, it will be chopped for firewood,” he said. I could hear the drama in his voice and I drove over that afternoon. Near a mountain of split oak there sat what I can only describe as a giant set of ram’s horns. I took it back to my studio and carved out all of the rotten wood, eventually making it into the sculpture, Lidian’s Lyre, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife, Lidian — who rarely gets credited for her part in the Transcendentalists’ activities.  

A tree’s wood remains as a testament to its age; its rings are a reminder of the seasons and the passing years. We, humans, unlike trees, don't have to carry all of our wood for our entire lives. Indeed many of the cells in our body renew themselves every few years. We don’t need to carry everything we ever did, thought, or felt; we can let go of ideas and patterns that no longer serve. When I am working on a sculpture it is satisfying to carve out the decayed wood and discover the intact hard wood. Here’s to clearing the mind and uncovering the thick rings of abundance.