Yesterday I made my thirteenth and final visit of 2011 to the Japan House Pond at the Illinois Arboretum on a warm, bright December day. Wearing a sweater and light windbreaker, I hiked around the pond to take in this place I’ve watched morph through the seasons. Near 50 degree readings on the thermometer guaranteed a lack of snowcover, unlike last year at this time when the arboretum was blanketed in thick white snow.
The red-brown twigs of the cherry trees lining the southern edge of the pond are tipped with next spring’s flower buds that wait for the new season’s green flag to wave. The air was so fresh during my visit, it was easy to imagine the cherries covered in white and pink blooms.
The growth of previous years is clearly marked on the young branches of a Japanese maple. Older growth matures to a bright mahogany; the newest twigs grow with a red-purple sheen.
Japan House is where I developed my affection for Japanese Beautyberry (Callicarpa), a shrub whose tiny purple berries persist through the winter on thin arching stems.
The bayberry shrubs (Myrica) have lost most of their leaves, revealing the grey-white aromatic fruit gathered along the lower stems. The fruit color contrasts beautifully with the brown branches. From a distance, it gives the appearance of snow.
The weeping Cherry that grows within the main wall of Japan House glowed in the late afternoon sun. Glorious in spring, its pendulous habit makes a beautiful winter specimen as well.
My favorite season for the hawthorns (Crataegus) along the pond’s northern edge is winter. Bare of foliage, the true character of these distinctive trees appears. Only the branched thorns that grow along the trunk keep me from running my hands along the bark to feel its flaky texture. In the lawn surrounding the trees, dandelions bloomed. The remnants of milkweed vines that grew shrouded in summer foliage now dangle as ornaments from the network of branches. I stood beneath the hawthorns with the sun in my face for quite a while, feeling a palpable connection with the things I hold true.
As the sun set lower in the sky, long shadows formed beneath baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), alternating with the glowing bronze of the fallen foliage that provides a thick layer of mulch beneath these majestic trees.
The air grew cooler as the sun fell behind the pines that grow on the hill to the west. A warm yellow colored wispy cirrus above the pines, turning Japan House and its surrounding gardens to silhouette. The remaining light glistened off the water.
As I walked away from Japan House Pond, I felt both melancholy and content. But more than anything, I felt one with this place that I’ve watched change through the seasons.