"No one can walk in a road cut through pine woods without being struck by the architectural appearance of the grove, especially in winter when the bareness of the trees show the low arch of the Saxons. In the woods on a winter afternoon one will see as readily the origin of the stained glass window...in the colors of the western sky seen through the bare and crossing branches of the forest."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
1. Practice ID-ing Trees by Bark & Bud
What do you do in the winter when there are no leaves present? You learn to identify trees by their most stalwart characteristic - the bark! This type of identification is also helpful when the leaf canopy is too high up for proper recognition, no matter the season. If you practice, you begin to see patterns. Beech bark has distinctive smooth, gray bark. Shagbark hickory is just that, shaggy. White ash's arrow shapes can be easily remembered by A = Arrow = Ash. Hornbeams or "musclewoods" will make you think you stumbled into Planet Fitness with their ropey brawn. Some say that the bark of older Black Cherry trees looks like burnt potato chips. The dormant buds and leaf scars can also be clue to the type of trees. Black Walnut leaf scars always remind me of ET!
Some great resources include Michael Wojtech's incredible book Bark, and May Watt's Winter Tree Finder. For a terrific FREE resource, check out this Winter Tree ID Pocket Guide made available by Forest Preserves of Champaign County.
2. Go Burl & Cavity Hunting
A burl is a gnarly-looking, extraneous growth found on a tree. They usually grow when a
tree is experiencing stress, typically an injury, virus, or fungal infection. Although they seem ugly on the outside, burls are highly prized by woodworkers who know the magnificence on the inside. (Burl wood furniture is wildly popular because it produces natural and unique swirls and lumps.) We like to count how many burls we see on our walks and see who spots the biggest!
Just like a rotten tooth, a cavity is a hollow, dark crevice - but that's where the commonalities stop. Most of these nature cavities are found in "snags"or standing dead/dying trees and they're beneficial, unlike those tender crannies in our mouths. These nooks provide life-saving shelter to so many animals during the winter months. Birds and small mammals sublet these sylvan condominiums, supporting over 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide. Although fun to hunt for, take care not to disturb any wildlife snoozing within. You wouldn't appreciate someone poking a stick through your window, would you?
3. Start a Nature Journal with Tree Silhouettes
Keeping a nature journal is wonderful hobby. Author Clare Walker Leslie describes it as, "your path into the exploration of the natural world around you, and into your personal connection with it." In her books, "Keeping a Nature Journal" and "The Curious Nature Guide" Leslie provides techniques and prompts to help you observe and spark connections with our natural spaces. One of my favorite things to journal is the different silhouettes trees take on in winter. Deceptively simple lines start to take on distinctive shapes. Try to sketch the same tree in the daylight and again at dusk. Doodle some evergreens or the various types of deciduous trees in your neighborhood. Don't judge your drawings - just record what you see in that moment in time.
4. Go for a "Sky Swim"
When you were a kid maybe you passed a summer afternoon laying on your back, finding shapes in the clouds. For most of us, we can't remember the last time we slowed down enough to do this (or if we could let our imaginations still "find" anything at all)! This practice, referred to as Pareidolia, describes our brain's natural tendency to perceive faces, animals, and images in inanimate objects (think: Man in the Moon).
With the absence of leaves, the forest canopy becomes a topographic map. The contour lines of the bare branches stretch across a sea of blue. Take a minute. Look up - and let your imagination unfurl. Better yet, pack a blanket or tarp, lay down and "go swimming." It may be cold, but I have yet to find a simpler way to shift perspective.
5. Create a Slime Mold, Lichen, Moss & Fungi Gallery
Although there are numerous differences in lichens, mosses, fungi and slime molds; many are similar in that they find a host on tree trunks and rotting logs. With so many varieties - there are more than 900 species of slime molds found all over the world - wild formations, and colors; going searching for these unique organisms is so much fun. The white winter backdrop can make the all the different colors really POP! Take some pictures or draw what you see. When you get home, try to identify and keep a list of the varieties you've seen!
Please make this a "Hands Off" activity - Fungi are wonderful to look at but can be very poisonous so please don't touch any! Myxomycetes by Steven Stevenson is a beautifully illustrated resource on slime molds. Check out the links below for more ID resources.
Share your favorite Winter activities with us in the comments!