The Trees Who Wear Their Character on Their Skin

Bark has a painful texture, like it’s been scratched, grooved by claws.

Except for gum trees.

They look like a snake that’s just shed its skin, but it’s not very good at shedding, so you can still see bits of this layer, and the last layer, and the last layer. At first, it looks like paint splotches, as though the snake zipped through a studio of abstract artists, but then you realize it’s all skin and it’s hard to be as whimsical about it as you were before.

Bark texture comes from the way the tree grows—the faster it shoots up, the rougher the texture. The impatience of willows leaves its mark on their skin. Maybe that’s why so many of them weep. Japanese maple, on the other hand, knows the value of patience. It builds each layer with careful precision, unfurling its delicate leaves one by one, enjoying a lifetime of a trunk without scars.

Japanese maples make for terrible windbreaks, as a result. Starting a farm in the prairie, you need trees that will get tall in a hurry. The sooner the wind won’t flatten your corn, the better. You need poplars for that (not willows because they like wading, and rivers and lakes in the prairies generally have enough trees of their own), who relish the thought of racing upwards, who bear their split bark with pride.

And what of paper birch? Or the Australian paper bark tree? They stand with chapped lips, which on other trees would make you ask after their health. But, on them, the peeling sections are natural and healthy. They provide enrichment to the soil, firestarter for humans. Tear too much and they suffer, but when you respect their needs, their weakness becomes a gift.


Some days, we are Japanese maples. Rather than stretch to become a protector in a land that has never known trees, or open ourselves so others may be warmed, we build what we have slowly, methodically. In that sheltered, warm place, we let loose our leaves in season, and people gather them to make bouquets.

And other days, we are willows. Many of us stand by ponds and rivers, in mourning. We are so caught in our reaching to the water that we do not see the passerby who stopped, breath caught in their throat, heart pausing a beat at the beauty of those graceful branches. Grooved skin included.

It is in the bark that we see a tree’s character.

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