Saturday, November 10, 2012

Unexpected Gold

Growing up in the Midwest, I was absolutely enamoured with the deep pine forests of the Rocky Mountains. I had been born in Denver, but after our family moved to Kansas City we only visited the mountains as tourists once a year. The plains of Kansas and Missouri surrounded my home for a hundred miles in every direction and these were not populated by large forests of any kind, let alone the lofty pine. These evergreen trees were exotic to my young mind and seemed so different than the few hardwoods I was familiar with. The pines were incredibly tall, and rather than spreading broad branches in a horizontal scheme, they seemed to soar straight up into the heavens, their tops even tickling the feet of angels flying "up there."

Another way in which these pines seemed so superior to the oaks, maples, and sycamores I knew was that their "leaves" were made for the long haul. Unlike my lowly hardwoods, which weakly dropped their entire crop of leaves as the weather turned cool in the fall, the ever-green pines had wonderfully exotic needles with which they eternally clothed themselves. Even through the coldest arctic blasts the proud and stoic pines kept their deep green cloaks wrapped tightly about them. Never naked, never shivering in the cold, they seemed to laugh at what the winter threw their way.

BARELY GREEN, © Bill Brockmeier, 2012
All rights reserved by the artist
When I moved to South Texas thirty years ago, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the "secret" held by the magnificent cypress tree. The Hill Country in which I live is filled with the clear, cold, fast rushing rivers and streams which host the wonderful cypress. These trees nearly always grow at the very edge of the rivers, thrusting their feet and legs– up to their knees– into the fresh water and solid rock limestone bed. Some of these huge seniors are known to have seen over a thousand seasons, and who knows how many floods.

These cypress giants seemed so much to me like the pines I idolized as a boy. They were incredibly massive and tall, as were the pines. This was certainly a "tree's tree" that fulfilled the biblical description of the "Cedars of Lebanon." And the finely divided leaflets seemed so much like the pine's needles. These were clearly in the "evergreen" class of trees. Or so I thought.

BROAD PALLET, © Bill Brockmeier
All rights reserved by the artist
After our first summer in South Texas, with the coolness of autumn descending from the north, we began exploring the Hill Country in earnest. As we approached one of the seductively clear rivers on our journey, I noticed something strikingly odd about it. This stretch of once magnificent cypresses was turning brown and some were already bare and apparently dead. How could this have happened? Was it some strange tree-specific blight killing them in succession? Was some out of control insect species to blame? Had something been dumped in the river and poisoned them? What a tragedy!

As we drove on and came to another river the same depressing scenario appeared at the river banks. We couldn't believe how badly this plague had progressed. We were somewhat deflated as we finally arrived home.

That evening, as I read about the bald cypress in our field manual of trees, I suddenly realized the ignorant mistake I had made. These cypress were NOT the evergreens I had supposed them to be, but were actually classified as deciduous trees! These trees were supposed to drop their leaves each fall. I sheepishly told my wife about the truth I had just discovered.

In the few decades since that time I have come to appreciate the rich gold, amber, and orange show the cypress makes each November. I now actually look forward to this unusual autumn display of deciduous splendor. It is kind of ironic that growing up in the Midwest, where gorgeous autumn trees are the norm, I now live in South Texas where most of the oaks are "live" (nearly evergreen), and this seemingly "evergreen" cypress is one of the few deciduous trees. As a wise man once said: "Go figure..."

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