A recent trip took me from the Driftless region of Iowa to Oslo and then on to Spitsbergen, a treeless island in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Circle. At this time of year, the primary color of the landscapes in all these places is white, and these winter landscapes gave me a whole new perspective on the world and on the plants that inhabit it throughout the seasons.
An icy rain in Iowa covered the local burr oaks in ice, set against the snow, and the result was breathtaking and magical. These oaks have a muscular and sinuous form, with curving trunks and branches that remind me of the sculptures of Giacometti. And their effect, especially when frosted by snow and ice, more easily taken in by the human eye than by the lens of a camera, was remarkable. Trees and shrubs in the winter landscape serve a purpose that makes them unique in the plant kingdom. While perennials and annuals often disappear under the snow pack, these woodies remind us of what lies beneath — and ahead. They are a connection not only to the moment, but also to the never-ending cycle of seasons within temperate climates. They connect us to the season we are in, and to the seasons yet to come.
This became even more apparent when I arrived in Oslo en route to a seed conference in the Arctic Circle. In Oslo, trees seem to arise from the winter landscape of the parks and squares, side by side with sculptures and monuments, and often have the more commanding presence.
Living in a land with an extended winter, Norwegians seem to understand the importance of living reminders throughout the landscape that contain the promise of spring and greenery. To my mind, it was effective. Tree trunks rise like dancers lined up in parks and on streetscapes. Against the backdrop of the city, they seem to inhabit the winter as comfortably and as populously as the hardy citizens themselves. Through the window of the train into the city, trees in this winter landscape, carefully placed and silhouetted against the snow and countryside, reminded me of model railroads constructions. They felt at once as if they were placed there both by man and by the hand of God.
A model at the Opera House for the forthcoming Munch Museum was replete with model trees in the area leading up to it, and this made sense, because the architecture of Norway is at once softened and dramatized by its juxtaposition with nature. Yet, the treeless landscape of the Opera House, with its sharp angles that make its snow-covered form look like a practice place for the Norwegian skiers who took all of the gold at the Olympics, highlighted the other element of the winter landscape — the snow itself. And if I thought that the angles of the Opera House represented the starkness of winter beauty, it was nothing compared to what was awaiting me in Svalbard.
Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, sits in the Svalbard archipelago, well above the Arctic Circle and, in the winter, shows no signs of plant life above the surface of the snow. It was a startling contrast to the sculptural tree forms that surrounded me in Oslo and in Iowa, and had a beauty all its own. But on late nights walking up to the hotel, or on windy afternoons with driving snow and ice, this treeless landscape made me think of something else: how comforting a reminder of the seasons to come signs of life like trees can be. A late night traipse through this treeless land left me feeling wildly alone and exposed to the elements. A tree would have served as a signal that life (and survival) is possible here. This landscape reflected both the hand of God, and the footprint of humankind. The old wooden towers from coal-mining days reminded me especially of nature’s power, glory and indifference to us humans. In this landscape, we are nothing more to nature than one more species it contains. Trees remind us at these times that we are not alone.
Next week, our self-taught gardener takes us on a tour of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.