This reflection was presented with a slideshow of photographs by Carole Smith Berney.

My Favorite Trees

Many of you may know me as a nature and wildlife photographer. But did you know that I’m a “tree hugger”? Meaning, I love trees, their diversity, strength, beauty, graceful forms, and the benefits they bring to us. From my early years, trees have had special meaning for me. So, here comes a story about how I met some favorites.

Once upon a time, as a young teenager, I would climb up and sit in the willow tree in our back yard with my journal, enjoying the privacy and quiet, surrounded by beautiful leaves. It’s still one of my favorite trees, with gorgeous early color in the spring, when they flower. They’re definitely water lovers, seen in spring along the Charles River and at Willow Pond at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. They are amazing; they can easily keep growing if you put a broken branch into the bottom of a pond, or when uprooted, as you may have seen this willow trunk, currently stuck on the Watertown Dam, staying alive!

Willow by water with bright green leaves.

Willow at Willow Pond. / Carole Berney

When I was a girl in 1952, my father planted three Norway maple trees in the yard of our new house in. Why? His parents had come to America as immigrants from Norway so these trees had a kind of symbolic significance for him. When I later moved to Watertown, a very large Norway maple lived on our berm. In fact our whole street was filled with a canopy of these, which provided great shade, as well as habitat for a flicker to drill out a hole for a nest. But after living there for over 80 years, the Norway maples began to bite the dust. Here you see my daughter Jennifer standing on one of these giants, blown-over in 1985, after Hurricane Gloria. Eventually, others died from rotting out, which is what happened to ours, and the town of Watertown removed it. Around Halloween, my husband entertained the neighbors by painting a face on its stump. When my husband and I bought our house in Watertown in 1978, it was the very impressive and beautiful locust tree in the back yard that was the crowning reason for our making the purchase. 40 years later, we continue to love looking up at the sky through the filigree leaves.

Another tree we chose for our yard was a graceful birch: we planted it in honor of our daughter’s “leaving the nest” for college, and we called it “the Jennifer tree.” Well, birch trees don’t always survive for long, and it died after a few years. BUT–miraculously–one of its seeds traveled to the side of our house and up sprouted a birch sapling! I say “miraculously” because this happened right around the time Jenn gave birth to her first child, Harlan. And so we refer to it, now 11 years old, as “the Harlan tree.” This spring, robins built a nest in it, and the young ones have now departed for our lawn, along with the bunnies and the squirrels.

When we lost our Norway maple, we asked the town to plant a red maple tree, in honor of our son Will’s going away to college in 2002. The “Will tree” has grown from a little sapling to a huge red maple tree on our planting strip, taller than our house! What’s cool about the red maple is that it has something red throughout its life cycle: in late winter, even in the snow, red maples send out red buds. Later they turn into red flowers, and eventually to the red seeds called samaras. And notice how red their leaf veins can be and how brilliant their fall display!

Sugar maple with bright orange leaves on tree and on ground surrounding tree. Bench in mid-ground between tree and a river.

A riverside bench with a sugar maple in fall colors. / Carole Berney

Other beloved maple types in Watertown include sugar maples, with great fall foliage color: by the Charles River, in the Common St. Cemetery, near the high school, at Mt. Auburn Cemetery and in our neighborhood. These are the trees that produce maple syrup, which we enjoy on our pancakes!

And then there’s my favorite: the threadleaf Japanese maple. Our youth group planted one a few years ago in First Parish’s meditative garden. Mt. Auburn Cemetery has a wonderful threadleaf that I like to visit and photograph in all seasons: in rain, in autumn with its brilliant orangey leaves, and in snow. I especially enjoy visiting this tree on the inside to appreciate and photograph the sinuous branches and delicate leaves, wet from the rain.

“Tall Tales About Trees”

Of the 60,000 species of trees, I’ve got some “tall tales” to share with you about just a few.

Beginning with some local conifers: Recognize this stand of white pines, at the Boys and Girls club? They are conifers, bearing cones (show cones) and evergreens: despite the cold and snow, they don’t drop their needles in winter. In the past, many of these 150 feet tall trees were exported across the Atlantic to provide masts for sailing ships. Now here is a special tree that’s a conifer, but not an evergreen: the larch. It does turn out cones, but notice what happens to its needles in the fall: they turn a beautiful golden color and then they “fall”: definitely not an evergreen.

Large beech tree with green foliage on draping limbs

A beech at Mount Auburn Cemetery / Carole Berney

Moving on to the beech tree: huge, with leaves hanging down like tresses of a kneeling woman. One can enter to the inside and even have a group picnic there. Once I did enter this one at Mt. Auburn Cemetery on a hot day, scaring away a romantic couple. This is the seed the beech produces: a beech nut. Notice these claw marks on the bark of a beech tree I photographed in the woods of Pennsylvania. Any guesses: what animal loves to climb beech trees and feast on beech nuts? A black bear!

Other tall trees: the Dawn Redwood, here in Mt. Auburn Cemetery: out west they grow to enormous proportions, like the giant redwood; it’s a type of Sequoia. (Oldest known one is over 3000 years in age!) Did you know there’s a Sequoia in Watertown? Check it out: on Spring St. Though it towers over the houses there, it’s only about 70 years old, so it still has a long life ahead of it!

Another ancient or “fossil” tree is the gingko tree, a species existing for 260 million years; it was around in the Jurassic age along with the dinosaurs! Now it’s a beautiful urban tree (have you noticed the stand of them in front of Sasaki Architects?) With fan-like leaves and fruit containing a nut. In China and Japan there are one-hundred feet tall gingko trees around temples and monasteries that are reportedly 1,000 to even 2,000 year old.

View up along trunk of tree with mottled bark and green leaves.

Looking through the sycamore leaves. / Carole Berney

And to end here with the mighty sycamore, the largest hardwood tree in girth in North America, growing to 130 feet in height, and 5 or 6 feet in diameter. You perhaps have seen this mighty specimen on Belmont Street, near the set of condos called “The Village.” As this giant grows, large plates of thin, scaly bark peel off, showing contrasting colors of the inner bark. An older tree can become quite “ghost-like” as bark falls off.

An interesting story about beloved Sycamores locally: In the Harvard Square area along Memorial Drive, many huge sycamores stand there, planted in the 19th Century. Back in the 1960s, when the MDC had plans to take them all down, rumor has it that folks–tree huggers for sure!–chained themselves to the trees in protest! The battle was won: protests can be successful, and those sycamores continue to thrive.

Most sycamores over 100 years old are hollow at the heart, but still continue to grow and expand. I photographed this hollow one a few weeks ago on a path leading into Fresh Pond. It’s still alive, but hollow, and a child could probably go inside the opening and sit for a while.

The Robin Hood legend has him hiding in a hollow sycamore tree. But the truth is: in days gone by, pioneers might stable a horse, cow or pig in such a hollow tree. A historic record states that in 1744, a Shenandoah Valley settler named Joseph Hampton and two sons lived for most of the year in a hollow sycamore in what is now Clarke County, Virginia. (This is true!) Though the Fresh Pond sycamore is not big enough (yet!) to house a family, I think you can get the idea. Two photos from the internet attest to that!

Meditation on Trees

View through trees with dark trunks and low undergrowth.

A scene behind Concord graveyard. / Carole Berney

Please join me in a few moments of meditation (and prayer…).

Breathe deeply…..and know that some of that air may have been cleaned by trees.

Think of all the trees….in your yard…in your neighborhood…in your town…by the Charles River…at Mount Auburn Cemetery… Let yourself enjoy the images…

And consider their benefits:

  • Providing cooling shade
  • Soaking up stormwater
  • Reducing noise pollution
  • Offering privacy
  • Soothing the psyche
  • Improving health and wellbeing
  • Stabilizing urban air temperatures
  • Providing food, shelter, and habitat for animals
  • Sequestering carbon, a process essential for decreasing global warming

Consider how ancient, sprawling forests act as our world’s lungs, taking in carbon, purifying our air, reducing carbon emissions, and helping regulate our climate.

May we honor and care for trees as living beings, a crucial part of the interdependent web of all being, of which we are a part!

Amen…. and blessed be…

Carole Smith Berney
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Carole Smith Berney is a nature and wildlife photographer who celebrates the visual and spiritual gifts of the natural world. She has been a member of First Parish of Watertown since 1985.