I’m taking the opportunity to learn to identify the shapes of winter trees before I abandon the winter comfort (like not too great a distance from a warm car to warm the fingers for writing) for the rougher out-of-doors of delightful spring, summer and autumn. For some time I’ve been a bit miffed at myself for not taking the time to learn these shapes when trees are well adorned with very identifiable leaves and seeds.

So I began from beneath a hackberry tree (which I’ll take time to talk about another time) and counted northwest 51 yards to the base of an elm. It stood cooperatively a bit separated from the other trees.

The elm challenged me to put its shape into words at a time of year in these June days when we think more about lawns and lakes than we do about trees. I would call it heavy-limbed, with a shape like an inverted cone. Of course elm bark is always identifiable, even in midwinter, with a character that I would call layered or flaked.

I then counted 16 yards due south to the base of a green ash. This I considered spindly-limbed, with limbs that begin low in the trunk. The bark is ridged and well-defined.

Of course one will find exceptions, like the shape of the great elm under which I sit in summer. This is no exact science, but it is a start.

A small flock of goldfinches greets me as I pace about. Mostly it seems they are females with their dusky gold backs and black wing bars.

They seem intent on reminding me that this is migration season and no time to be thinking about these old winter trees. Now some chickadees send out their calls off to my left. Of course the wild turkeys are making their presence known, reminding me that soon I won’t be seeing much of them anymore until next winter. For now they are still in their courting mode with their tails fanned out in a splendid display, hoping a lady bird will take notice.

Three yearling deer prance by saucily some distance to my right, as if they own the place. No moms appear nearby to guide them or give them counsel. The moms have put them out on their own. They find counsel in each other.

It is a wonder that I never see any carcasses around. The thought, as strange as it may be in this springtime of the year, comes to me as I think of the passing of generations.

This disappearance is true of turkeys and squirrels as well as deer and rabbits and all creatures. We have the sense that we are looking at the same individuals from year to year, which of course we are not. Are their remains so quickly consumed by mice or mites of whatever is given the job, so quickly that we never discover those remains. I recall in the Yukon you could rarely find even antlers of moose or deer in the wilderness.

Nature is extremely, extremely efficient in the clean-up. There is a lesson to be learned here somewhere.

James Alger, who lives in Fargo, N.D., has been a summer resident of the Leech Lake area with his family for over 45 years. Over that time he has grown to love and appreciate the people and the woodlands of this area.


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