Beauty in the eyes of the beholder

Published 8:54 pm Friday, February 12, 2021

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By Mary Catherine Foster

Winter offers a unique opportunity to appreciate the beauty in the structure of a forest. Broadly speaking, the forest can be easily viewed in three major layers: the canopy, the understory and the floor. The canopy is the layer where the crowns of most of the forest’s trees meet to form a thick layer. This is the forest roof. It blocks out much of the light to lower vegetation. Further down is the understory which has the bushes, brambles, and immature trees. At the very bottom is the forest floor. Here is where you find leaf litter, fallen logs, twigs, roots, moss, herbs, small shrubs, grasses and herbaceous plants — the nutrient factory of the forest. Like in our homes, a lot of stuff ends up on the floor.

Winter is a great time of the year to take a hike through the woods and discover a type of beauty that just might bring out the awe of discovering a world filled with small wonders. Observe how the sunlight is filtered by the bare tree limbs. Watch for birds and small animals moving about in the bushes and trees. As you move along, look for patches of green moss on logs, the base of trees and along the banks of streams. Details that would likely go unnoticed in late spring when trees and shrubs have leafed out and dominate the scene.

On a recent trek in the forest, I discovered a patch of tree-club moss/ground pine. It is not a true moss but is the class of Lycophytes which are among the most ancient group of vascular plants. Tree-club moss looks like a little pine tree. The stems can be 6 to 10 inches tall and thickly branched, with small shiny green leaves like the needles of conifers. The underground stem has many branches that create colonies of the plant in shady and moist woodlands. Like its relative, running-cedar, it stays green all winter and was often over-collected for use in Christmas decorations. Finding a patch of tree-club moss on the untidy forest floor was my awe moment.

Winter is a great time of the year to take a hike through the woods and discover a type of beauty that can be refreshing and rejuvenating. You do not have to fight off bugs or watch for snakes, and your field of vision is significantly larger. A walk in nature may be good for what ails you.