Archive for April, 2016

Sycamore Spirituality

Sycamore Spirituality

April 2016

Nancy Deming-May

Have you ever come across something in your life that has been there the whole time but you just became aware of it? I’ve had this experience recently with sycamore trees – America Sycamores – platanus occidentalis – also know as the American planetree, the occidental plane, and buttonwood.

We frequently drive back and forth to upstate New York – we have rental property and relatives up there and we also love the area. Part of this route takes us through Amish country, up Pennsylvania State Route 15 alongside the Susquehanna River. It’s one of my favorite parts of the route and my husband and I both enjoy seeing the river, in its various stages – low, high, fast, icy – faithfully running along beside us as we make our way north or south. I’ve been making this trip for over ten years now, but for some reason, something jumped out at me last winter. I kept noticing the striking mottled white and green-barked trees along the river. They stood out starkly – in beautiful contrast to the other bare deciduous trees hugging the bank. I was mesmerized. I immediately started Googling on my phone “white barked trees in Pennsylvania” and determined they were American Sycamores. Soon I was seeing them EVERYWHERE – almost always near a body of water, and often with one or two others nearby. Closer inspection showed they had a “normal” looking grey trunk closer to the ground, but the white with the light green mottled effect started higher up. So probably when the leaves were on the tree, you wouldn’t notice the gorgeous white bark as much. It was such a welcome relief and contrast to the winter browns and greys – providing a splash of personality to an otherwise drab landscape.

Further research revealed this about the American Sycamore: Though these trees tend to be near water, they have proven to be somewhat tolerant of drought. There is a related London Planetree that is quite popular in cities. The American version is often on the “banned trees” list due to its potential for high pollen (not good for many city residents), it can have quite an extensive root system (not good for underground sewers and such), and it is also vulnerable to epidemics such as insects, viruses, bacteri, or fungi.

Once I spied and identified this showstopper, I began to see them EVERYWHERE! On our property in New York, in the parking lot of my office park, right in the middle of a cluster of trees where I had walked the dogs everyday for nine years. They were ALL around me! How had I missed this beauty for so long? Why?

The sycamores made me think of people in our lives that are like these amazing trees. You may not notice them in the good times – there are no beautiful flowers or aroma in spring, the leaves are large – almost bulky; their greenery covers up that gorgeous bark higher up on the tree; and their fall foliage is a drab yellow – with those large rather bothersome, though striking, leaves.

It is in the doldrums of winter, when all the other trees are stripped bare – their adornment gone – that these oft-overlooked trees stand out in the crowd. Some of us have had the opportunity to witness this phenomenon in humans – at not always pleasant times – as the cold, dormant periods of our lives are not always our favorites, but we’ve had that friend or acquaintance who showed her true colors in this difficult period. They were the welcome help when no one else would or could pitch in, the faithful helper when you felt the most alone, the card or call of support when it was most needed – the sycamores of our lives.

Another irony of the sycamore bark is that its striking appearance is due to the tree bark’s inability to stretch like most barks do – so it peels off and exposes this bare trunk that is so exquisite and unusual. Isn’t this like many of us? Most of us would rather stretch and bend and go with the flow and turns of life, but sometimes we just CAN’T stretch and bend anymore and we split wide open – exposing our innermost selves. It may be embarrassing, but there is a beauty and purity to it – being our most authentic, vulnerable selves – the bare bark of our true being.

So the next time you are driving down a familiar road, try to notice the trees. Are there any that stand out for you? Some you never really noticed before? When you are walking near trees, pick out one or two that intrigue you. Notice their color, the texture of their bark, the shape of their limbs, and, of course, their leaves. Get to know it a little better. Figure out what kind of tree it is, whether it is indigenous, deciduous, invasive, or blight-prone. If it speaks to you, make it YOUR tree. The one that shows up when you need it most. Perhaps you are having a bad day, and you turn your head while sitting impatiently at a stoplight, and you see YOUR tree – reminding you of its diligence, its perseverance, its evolving beauty – and you feel reassured. Share the exercise with your friends and family – What kinds of trees are THEY? Showy fun trees that wow us for a short period, or beautiful ornamentals we adore year round, or perhaps a solid performer that doesn’t shine until the darkest days of winter? Learn to appreciate the variety in our world and in our lives. And yes, acknowledge that some may need to be thinned from (or added to) your forest.

How many other things of beauty and comfort are right there in front of us that we haven’t yet noticed?

This tree also made me think of one of my favorite children’s books – Frederick. When I first read it to my kids, I didn’t quite get it, but the more I have reflected on it as I’ve made this journey of life, the more I appreciate it. Frederick was a different kind of mouse – he was a day dreamer – and while all the other mice were busy preparing for winter – gathering nuts and grains and staples to help them survive the long season, Frederick would be laying around with his eyes closed or staring at the sky. When his fellow mice complained, he explained that he was thinking of stories. They would just sigh an aggravated sigh and go on with their work. So as the cold weather settled in and the mice hunkered down for the winter and began to live off of their hard earned stores, Frederick was still “thinking” – to everyone’s annoyance. The long winter waged war on their dwindling supplies; it was dark and cold, and the mice became hungry and afraid, and wondered if they would make it to spring. It was then that Frederick stepped forward. The stories he had spent all summer and fall thinking of and “gathering” began to spill out, and he began to share these tales. The stories made the mice laugh, and they made the mice cry, and they made the mice forget about how difficult it was this time of year when everything was in short supply, and life was tenuous and hard. He helped them forget, and before they knew it, it was spring again. They ventured back out into the sunshine and the warmth and were revived after their long, harrowing winter – that Frederick helped them endure. I have felt like this story was a beautiful ode to artists, but also a tribute to those in ours lives that may not take center stage, that blend in with the crowd – until they are needed most. And maybe a nod to the misfits too.

Going further with the people–tree analogy – that friend to whom you are a little allergic (in high doses – analogous to a high-pollen producer), who is maybe a little too invasive (like that banned root system), or perhaps is a little TOO needy (vulnerable to life and takes a lot of maintenance). BUT, when push comes to shove and you are really in a winter down-and-out time – illness, death of a family member, needing help with a pet, etc., this is the friend who is there – with their oft-overlooked beautiful traits of dependability, willingness to help, hard-working-ness, or just a sense of humor or listening ear. They display their beautiful bark when we need it most.




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