Winter can be a hard season to enjoy, can't it? As a child, I would mourn the snow melting as it tends to do in Ohio, and rejoice when it painted the woods white again. I hated the brown that would appear between snows. I thought it was depressing, and, dare I say, ugly.
Funny how your taste changes when you start looking. For now I would not dare label "ugly" what winter brings upon our landscape, snow or not.
As I wander on the trail today, I think on how most of us see the striking beauty of snow, despite its attempts to hinder journeys and chill our bones. John Burroughs describes it aptly in "The Snow Walkers" when he exclaims that winter is "A severe artist! No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel. When the nights are calm and the moon full, I go out to gaze upon the wonderful purity of the moonlight and the snow."
But when the snow disappears, where is the marble? I remember my childhood self despising the time between snow, when the world is brown and bare. The vision of silently sulking on car rides through the brown-ness flashes across my mind. How often I would wonder why the beautiful snow had to leave us with this mess underneath! I laugh to myself. Underneath that stubborn attitude, a small part of me wished even then that I might find beauty. "He has made everything beautiful in its time" the writer of Ecclesiastes states, and I hoped I could trust that the Lord could make anything beautiful. It turns out I could. Now I would not dare call the landscape ugly in winter. A sea of browns, with undertones of many hues, flood the winter lands. I have learned to love those browns and grays.
I hear the faint crackle of the beech leaves in the wind as I approach a sapling. That tree-song reminds me how this particular species played a part in my journey to see the beauty in all winter landscapes--the beauty of neutral, natural colors.
The sapling beech leaves hang on, you see. The rest of the deciduous trees shed their leaves, carpeting the forest floor. But not the beech sapling. This mysterious trait, known as marcescence, paints the winter landscape with echoes of autumn. It was these ghostly leaves which caught my curiosity as I sought to learn the beauty of the winter forest. Have you seen them? The color, that ranges from faded pink to parchment, catches the eye against all the deep browns of bark and branch if you are looking. Only the young beeches do this. They wait in lower parts of the forest for another tree to take its leave before they rise up to take its place. While they wait, they keep their leaves until the next ones grow, dried and crinkled though they be. A defiant youth, one might say of the beech sapling.
And yet, I wonder if I might lay aside my cynic's mantle and pick up the crown of expectation which these young trees bear. That youthful hope the beech saplings carry whispers in the wind a reminder. Now, when the despair of ever seeing summer once again overtakes my heart, those fragile, papery outlines remind me that indeed, the trees do have leaves, though in my heart I might feel they never shall again. These gray spindly arms put forth deep green leaves before, and despite fading into near-translucence, they hang on still. I step in closer to see those deep reddish spikes, the buds which will unfurl to new life. Unsheathed, they strike out at the cold air in defiance. Spring will come, they say with boldness. We will wait, and we will watch, and spring will come.
My lovely sister, our family poet, wrote this of the beech.
Copper lights, unlit, strung
from limb to another limb,
festoons that rattle and remember
in the quiet, white wood.
They hold onto fullness
and the shape of summer,
sing in now-raspy voices—
sing and sing 'til spring.
-Karly Alexandra Smith
Ahead, I see a sapling with peculiar leaves, looking nearly striped. I am reminded that we live in a fallen world, where disease sometimes threatens that which we love. Even my beloved beeches may succumb to what is currently known as "beech leaf disease," first discovered here in Northeast Ohio. No miracle cure has come to light, but slow and steady work is being done to save our beloved beeches. Like us, the beeches are fragile, sustained by the One who made all things and who holds all things together.
Back in the studio, I set to work thinking, sketching, painting, stitching. I have long desired to capture these leaves in my work, and have been working on several renditions. One is not yet complete, for it is a large undertaking, but I will share a glimpse. I began by including the beech in my Winter Forest Note Card set. But I have continued to paint these leaves on fabric and use them in textiles. This tiny tapestry is just the beginning, more like a test. I so enjoyed combining my love of native plants with scraps of antique coverlet. It is very me, I think, combining layers of patterns and shapes, history and nature. Antique coverlet scraps remind us that any history can be redeemed and restored to new life. Beech leaves point to the value of the species the Lord made for this place and the beauty they hold even in the dark months. My hope, as ever, is to create pieces that people enjoy, and which teach you to see. An artist is sometimes merely a finger, pointing to something greater.
Above you can see some in process shots of a large piece featuring a young beech. I will reveal the full piece once I finish it. The piece uses wool, cotton, linen, paints and threads—some of my very favorite materials. I was truly hoping to have it finished for this post, but I am a mere human, and this endeavor grew as I worked on it. I appreciate your patience, and hope these work-in-progress shots pique your curiosity.
In the meantime, go out and look for beech leaves. You might be surprised by how delightful you find them, those beacons of hope in the great chill.
Update: The Finished Piece
Check out my sister Karly's writing here: https://www.karlyalexandra.com/
Buy my Winter Forest Note Card Set & view my work here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/KelseyAnileeSmith
Learn more about beech trees here: https://holdenfg.org/nature-profiles/american-beech/
Find out more about Beech Leaf disease here: https://www.cleveland.com/news/2022/04/will-beech-trees-go-the-way-of-the-ash-and-the-american-elm-holden-arboretum-others-hope-to-prevent-decimation-of-another-native-tree.html