Who can be a wild deer among deserted mountains
satisfied with tall grass and pines…
Han-shan Te-ch’ing, from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now ed. Red Pine & Mike O’Conner. Wisdom Press
Who is this old image-maker
wrapped up in pristine forests and trampled leaves?
This week I took a walk in local park shortly after a band of rainy weather passed over the island. In the park a one-way, 2.3-mile road shared by foot and car traffic loops through thick forest with brief views of the water beyond. The 15mph speed limit discourages car traffic; most people walk. I like to drive part way around the loop, park at a pull-out, and take trails through the forest, which I did that afternoon. When I came back out onto the road I admired a bright spot where maple trees interrupted the evergreen parade. Pale gold leaves were falling to the ground, making soft layers in the woods, but all the leaves that had fallen on the road were trampled flat by the tires of cars. The leaves’ cells were breaking down in progressively ruined stages: just-crushed, flat and thin enough to reveal pavement bumps, becoming translucent, losing edges, skeletonized – many stages of decomposition were on display.
I wavered about photographing the leaves on the road. Part of me was drawn to the way the splayed and flattened shapes recalled graphic depictions of a maple leaf. Another part of me was repulsed by the dirty, crushed plant tissue. The textures were interesting but the colors had lost their life. I turned away, then turned back. The sun was disappearing and there was no time for second guessing. Photographers know that the phenomenon we view at any given moment won’t repeat itself: the smashed leaves at my feet would never look quite like they did that afternoon. So I made some photographs and I’m glad I did.
I’ll look for the Bigleaf maples the next time I go to the park. Whatever I find it will be different next time, and the next. That’s part of the magic of walking outdoors. I’ll also be more likely to consider the aesthetic possibilities of crushed plant material the next time I come across it. That’s part of the magic of human imagination.
About the Bigleaf Maple
We are predominantly coniferous here on Fidalgo Island but we have our share of deciduous trees, trees that are mostly golden now as they work through the annual task of releasing their leaves. A standout among our deciduous trees is the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a well-named tree that’s hard to miss. With the largest leaves of any maple tree, it spreads its branches wide in the forest and frequently hosts copious amounts of moss on its trunk and branches. Happiest in moist climates that don’t get too cold, it ranges up and down America’s West coast where the weather is moderate, into the mid-elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and through coastal British Columbia.
Bigleaf maples turn yellow, gold and brown in the Fall as they cease food production and lose their chlorophyll, the photosynthetic pigment that green plants use to make energy from light. The same reduction in daylight hours that has me complaining prompts these trees to make layers of strong cells at the junction of each leaf stem and twig. The thicker cells allow weaker cells above them to break, severing the leaf from its home. The prodigious effort of food production that occupied the tree for the last six months or so is over; thousands of frail factories are floating down to the ground to gradually decompose. The process has its own intricacies; if you’re so inclined, here’s a study to about the mathematics of leaf decay from MIT.
Each spring before the leaves get started, male and female flowers share space on pretty, pendulous cascades that hang from branch tips. If there aren’t many other flowers out, the bees that visit Bigleaf maple flowers for nectar will produce a hauntingly fragrant honey. Last year I bought Bigleaf maple honey from a vendor at a farmers market and I savored every last drop until it was gone. I have to wait for another spring when I might be lucky enough to find it for sale again.
The flowers turn into winged maple seeds that ripen in the fall and are carried away by the wind for months afterwards to germinate in a moist, partially shaded spot when the time is right. A cut stem will sprout readily too. The little saplings are munched by deer and elk, birds and rodents eat the seeds, and various parts of the tree host a variety of insect life. Humans make use of the wood for furniture, veneers, musical instruments, crafts, pulp, and firewood.
The Bigleaf maple is an epiphyte paradise, gracefully supporting moss, lichens and ferns in great abundance. One study found that the trees carry an average of 78 ponds (35.5kg) of epiphyte biomass. They can actually grow small roots along epiphyte-covered branches to burrow into the rich substrate for nutrients captured from the atmosphere by the various epiphytes. Bits and pieces are always falling to the ground, enriching the soil.
These trees can live to be 300 – nothing compared to an ancient redwood, but an impressive number of seasons on earth. A photo of the biggest Bigleaf maple tree in the U.S. can be seen here. A person standing next to it makes the scale clear.
And here’s a photo of me holding an impressive leaf on a Bigleaf maple tree in July, 2012.