There's an intriguing quality to woodlands that I like to call the layered effect. It's most obvious when staring into a forested area that spans a large area and is composed of many different species of trees and other growth. Those in the foreground appear, of course, the clearest and offer the most detail. Pine needles, branches and leaves are all visible, distinct one from the other. But as the eye moves more deeply into the denser growth, images begin to blur, until they appear as layer upon layer of subtly different shades of greens and browns.
There, the edges of distinguishable shapes like leaves and branches blur, and smaller objects, such as individual pine needles, join to produce a tufted look when framed by the more delineated shapes of large boughs and trunks. Colors soften, and from that distance, pine boughs take on a bluish tint depending the slant of the light, becoming the stuff that woodland fantasies are made of.
This so-called layering process extends to all of life, from the air masses that exist above us to the ground we walk on. From its core outward, the planet we call home is a series of mineral masses that have continued to build on top of each other over billions of years. The uppermost layers, called plates, move constantly, releasing some of the intense pressure trapped beneath them in the form of earthquakes and volcanoes.
The oceans are composed of layers of water that start out relatively warm at the surface and get progressively colder toward the bottom. Clouds are layered masses of moisture, the air we breathe is just one layer in what we call our atmosphere, and in winter, snow accumulates in layers between storms. As all things grow, they do so by a process of new growth covering, or being covered by, old growth, as illustrated most distinctly in trees, whose new tissues emerge as rings that can be counted once they are cut down. As smaller plants grow, they do so as layers of new tissue displacing the old, snakes shed old skins to make room for the new, and even we humans evolve through growth that involves a layering process that takes place within and without.
Stylists speak of hair layering, painters apply pigment in layers toward the perfect finish, and masons put down stacks of foundational materials. We polish our nails with multiple coatings, we dress in layers against the cold, and even our lives could be said to be layers of experiences, one following another, each resting upon those that came before it.
Physically or philosophically, much of life evolves by degrees that often manifest themselves as shapes, objects, events or outcomes superimposed one upon the other. And the woods mirror that, in the detail they show us up close and layered against blurred masses of color and substance that act as backdrops, lending perspective and assigning meaning to what we are seeing. In this sense, nature is forever making connections between all forms of life, between the real and the abstract, between the clear and the hazy, between the lives of woodlands and wild creatures and our very own.
Looking deeply into the woods is an exercise for the mind and the eye, as both take in the myriad shapes, planes, surfaces and configurations that work together to produce what we see. And at some point in the farthest reaches, clarity dims as does reality and the imagination takes over. What is that over there, I often ask myself, when some shape, shade or shadow in the distance is too vague to identify. It could be nothing, I answer, or then again, it could be everything.