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Winter trees

02/16/07 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) Lately commentator Caleb Daniloff has been looking closely at the winter landscape, and he likes what he sees.

(DANILOFF) Foliage may be the most spectacular season in Vermont. But give me the stark twisted trees of winter any day.
No colors or pretense, just the honesty of a skeleton, their jagged blueprints spread out against a cold pale sky.

I've been driving Middlebury to Burlington every weekday for four years now. I barely see the gas stations anymore, the changing storefronts. The miles slip by with little notice. But this winter the trees are popping, their bare crooked branches reaching out to me, the scant snow cover revealing their full figures.

Trees are mostly ignored this time of year. The pressure to shade and shelter has been lifted, the eyes and camera lenses long since turned away. Through their leafless branches, though, they offer up revelations: a hillside cemetery in the distance, a hidden bay in Lake Champlain, a stretch of railroad track.

I don't know most of the types of trees along my drive, just the images they conjure. That one with all the serpentine limbs reminds me of Medusa's hair hissing in the wind. And that short one with the cluster of sharp vertical branches looks like a startled porcupine. Some gnarled trees cling sadly to a handful of withered leaves - the vain ones, the Baby Janes.

My favorite winter tree stands alone on a small bluff in New Haven, overlooking farm fields, Mount Abe and the Green Mountains on the horizon. It's not very tall, no crown to speak of, just nine or ten spiky arms raising a cold and twisted hallelujah to the sky. Framed by my car window, the scene resembles the cover of some ancient text.

Several miles north, the sturdy frame of a tall maple presides over the blank spot of grass where the historic Ferrisburgh Grange stood before it burned down a couple years back. Most of the branches reach for the clouds, except for one or two that turn downward, perhaps still in mourning, witnesses to the first flame and last charred plank to be hauled away, but also to the dream of renewal that quickly took root in that earth.

In northern Charlotte, a dirt road heading toward the lake is lined with dozens of wispy trees. Nudged forward by a persistent southerly breeze, they all bow toward Burlington, toward Canada, toward the top of the world. Like rows of worshippers facing their northern god.

Further along in Shelburne, a series of branching crowns remind me of so many bronchi jutting off rows of trachea. As I approach, one tree coughs up a flock of black birds, which scatter across the road like spores on the wind.

Before long, however, the trees turn into utility poles, gas stations and car dealerships, and the dream is over. I'm no longer the driver of a phantom tour bus guiding eager visitors through Vermont's un-foliage season. I pull into the parking garage in Burlington with a sigh, imagining that last camera bag snapping shut, a foreign accent or two murmuring, breath fogging up my rear windows.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer.

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