Nature has a way of communicating with us, whether we pay attention or not. Recently, sycamore trees have been singing their siren song to me.
Every day for nearly two years I’ve admired a graceful sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) whose canopy I can see from our third floor porch. This particular tree stretches its main trunk more than 60 feet skyward. Its bright white lines (the result of outer bark sloughing off to reveal its smooth, white inner bark) are a stark contrast to the green veil of summer leaves and the gray cloak of leafless limbs that surrounds it in winter. Vines from an enormous, old grape climb and curl up its trunk and drape across multiple branches, all the way to the top of the tree.
Last winter, I watched a raccoon blink its eyes open each evening at dusk and climb down those vines from his daytime resting place in a notch in that sycamore’s trunk. He was off to the forest floor and the creek beyond in search of dinner, no doubt. Each morning, just after dawn, he’d climb deliberately back up to nestle into the safety of the sycamore’s arms.
In late winter a squirrel spent weeks chewing off twigs and dragging limbs up the tree, shaping them into a new nest among the twining grape vines high in the sycamore’s branches. A few months later, young squirrels scampered about and basked on its branches just as the sycamore’s spring leaves emerged.
The sycamore is the first of the trees we can see from our porch to turn yellow in the fall and the last to break leafbud in the spring. While watching the sycamore this spring, I’ve also seen hummingbirds perch as rain splattered their backs, robins preen their feathers, squirrels chase each other in pursuit of a mate, bluebirds flit from limb to limb, and goldfinches sit in golden brilliance as the sun set. Our sycamore tree and its inhabitants have become an essential part of our daily lives.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own plant allies and realized that I have drawn images of the sycamore and its parts multiple times during the past year.
This tree has also shown up on many paths I’ve wandered recently – on foot and canoe, with friends and alone. Newly fallen limbs blocked my path. Sloughed off bark floated by as I paddled. And storm-whipped leaves flung from the sky to land at my feet. In so many ways it has captured my attention, telling me to stop and look, listen, be here, pay attention, enjoy its company and all it has to offer.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting other sycamore trees – while hiking along the Haw River, botanizing with a friend at Cedarock Park, paddling the Eno. They love the water’s edges, and their muscular, tangled roots cling mightily to the river’s muddy banks, determined to remain upright while living on the ever-shifting edge of flowing waters. Even when felled across a stream, the sycamore clings to life, its branches turning to the sky and growing like a bonsai forest along its now horizontal trunk.
Even hollowed out, gouged by lightning or a wind-broken branch, sycamores still thrive. As long as their cambium layer is not completely girdled, they manage to keep growing, sending out shoots, branches, extra trunks, and beautiful yellow-green leaves. Under the right conditions, they can get massive – with diameters of 8 – 13 feet.
The sycamore’s leaves are the largest on any eastern deciduous tree. Spread wide like your hand, with curling, pointed tips, they dance in the wind, twisting up, down, sideways – their dappled shade a welcome refuge when canoeing on a hot, sunny day.
There is a graceful strength about the sycamore tree. Living in an ever-changing habitat, it adapts and remains strong and beautiful. Powerful lessons, if we simply choose to listen to its music and learn.