I’ve been trying to clear unfinished business from my desk as another year draws to a close, and among the mail awaiting a response is a form letter from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me what I think about trees. I’ve yet to answer the survey, already overdue by a couple of months, but it’s not because trees haven’t been on my mind.
When you live where I do, in one of those old neighborhoods where trees often seem more plentiful than people, it’s hard not to think about trees all the time.
The other day, for example, over morning coffee near the living room window, I noticed what seemed like the silhouette of antlers in the middle of the yard, perhaps a few reindeer scouting their travel route for Christmas Eve.
But what I was really seeing were the pointed tips of a bare branch that had fallen from our sycamore, shaken from the canopy by a stiff winter wind the night before.
A sycamore spends all winter dropping things — little limbs dislodged by cold yuletide gusts, but also leaves, endless leaves, each one the size of a pie plate. The leaf litter, like a New England snowdrift, makes a vast obscurity of the landscape, hiding odd treasures than won’t be revealed again until spring.
Just beneath the leaves lies the rich sediment of summer — an old tennis ball that our terrier, in some distant episode of distraction, failed to retrieve; perhaps a toy water pistol or two; an oscillating sprinkler; and maybe, just maybe, the screwdriver I can no longer find in my toolbox.
Although the sycamore is conserving its strength for the season, our backyard bamboo grows without cease, casting out new shoots like a firecracker throwing off sparks. I pruned the canes back the other weekend so we wouldn’t be overcome by them, which is how I noticed our neighbor doing some yard work of his own.
The trees he trimmed along the fence — mostly tallows, I think — formed a small hill of limbs that now rest in a brush pile near the property line, a nice haven for birds and other critters this winter.
At its best, a brush pile ripples with movement as you approach it, as alive with itself as a biblical burning bush. Its twitching surface tells me that deep within the folds of dying vegetation, a wren, sparrow or other songbird is living its secret life.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, the brush pile will attract a few brown thrashers — the speckled, robin-size birds that get their name for the way they rummage through leaves as if rifling a suitcase.
I saw a brown thrasher last week among the sycamore leaves, his fierce pecking a reminder that in December, it pays to be alert and on the move.
I’m trying to take that message to heart, as I trudge through Christmas shopping with miles to go before I sleep.