Friday, September 11, 2009


The tree that I look out at every day from my porch, the tree that is mostly likely about 80 years old and shades both the porch and the house, is a Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis, family Platanacae).  It is one of the largest broadleaved trees in the state, and its massive trunk is wider than most other trees one finds in Pennsylvania.  It's also known as American Sycamore, American Plane Tree or Buttonball Tree (for the buttonball-like fruit)  There are 10 species of sycamore, and this is one of three that can be found in the U.S.   It's native to Pennsylvania, and it's said that there are sycamores here that date back to the days of William Penn.  They grow rapidly, and I have read that they can reach 70 feet in the first 20 years.

The leaves look something like the leaves of a Maple tree, triangular, triangular, prominent veins, but seem to me to be smaller than Maple leaves.  You find this tree planted a lot as a landscape or park tree; today my husband and I went to a fair in Mellon Park, and the first tree we saw was a sycamore.  What's most distinctive about them, though, is their peeling bark, which has a unique "camouflage" quality to it, as you can see a bit in the photo above.  I haven't been able to find out why the bark peels like this; it would seem logical that it is to discourage predators, insects or others, who might want to bore into the heart of tree or hide underneath its bark.  When I walk the dog each day, I often will stop at this tree as we get started and pull off a section of the bark that I'll carry with me during my walk, turning it over as I would a page, looking deep into its patterns as if they were poems.  

I'm interested not only in the natural history of trees, but in their mythology.  As I sit on my porch, mid-afternoon, on a cool fall day, I can feel a breeze, I can see the leaves of the tree moving in the wind, and I also hear the melody of the wind chimes that hang from the porch ceiling, and the motors of cars passing by a half a block away on Penn Avenue.  A small reminder of the ways in which nature and culture almost always exist in intimate relation.

I like to come out on this porch to think and to write when the weather is good, and my husband and I also come out after dinner to eat ice cream and do crossword puzzles in the evening.  When I really want to think or reflect, though,  I stop whatever it is I'm reading or writing, and look up at the tree as if it had some answers for me.  Or maybe just because it seems to be the wisest thing around, certainly the oldest.  

In Egyptian mythology sycamores were associated with the goddesses Nut, Hathor and Isis, each of whom carried the epithet "Lady of the Sycamore."  Trees are often considered sacred in ancient religions because they seem to be connectors between the underworld and the heavens:  their roots reached to the underworld while they branches brushed the heavens.  Those that lost their leaves in winter seemed to die and be reborn in spring, thus many trees are associated with birth and resurrection.  

Trees also provide nurturance. I love the Egypitan image above in which a tree is suckling a human.

I know that I feel nurtured and comforted by this tree.  When I'm sad, lonely or feeling hopeless, a strong, massive tree reminds me of longevity, of what it takes to survive--both roots and ambitious striving upward as well as a doggedness, a quality of not-giving-upness.

Soon this tree will lose its leaves, but its fruit will remain until spring when it will provide a feast for birds.

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