A black willow’s cornice of gold showcases a bittersweet vine the last week of November, 2010. This was a wholly unexpected moment when a serendipitous break in the clouds gilded the landscape moments before sunset.
As a boy I remember cutting lengths of bittersweet for my mother’s Thanksgiving table. At the time, the jeweled vine was a prized discovery and I would scout new patches each summer in the woods around our home. That was 60 years ago when bittersweet was scarce, but in recent years it has proliferated as its beauty renders silent death to countless saplings and trees across the state. Apart from its stunning color, an ironic beauty also is to be found in the wake of its destruction, in the “impermanence” it brings to the landscape; a paradox to our western aesthetic that seeks wholeness and immutability.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Death is beautiful when seen to be a law and not an accident.”
In nature beauty often attends death, quietly, inexorably. Consider the bittersweet vine, its autumn beauty spreading deliberately along the margins of northeast Ohio’s hardwood forests. For the vine, the act of commingling seems less a random desire than a living imperative, sustaining itself as it does by robbing its host of light and nutrients. And any suggestion of symbiosis or benign reciprocity between vine and tree is illusory only, a black willow in this instance struggling silently beneath the weight of bittersweet, its vine as thick as a thumb, twinning about its host and, not without irony, explodes in a splendorous display of coral berries and orange calyx.
Thoreau further laments there is only “as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate … How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us?”