Forever Amber

Throughout the temperate climates there are trees that hold on to their spring and summer greens throughout the later, demanding months.  They wear them as stubbornly and foolishly as one who wears a favorite coat in July or refuses to take an umbrella into the rain.  They live their evergreen lives eternally, proud of their verdant blood and the succulent life that will not blink in the face of the shifting seasons.

But there are some trees that pay attention:  to the altering temperatures, to the shadows that lengthen before noon, to the greedy night – Nature’s subtle hints that it is time to change.   Their leaves become melting prisms, with colors that undulate and flow:  creating microcosms of sunsets within a dying morphology.  Garnet, ginger, bronze and scarlet, they are as pure and fluid as the stained colors in cathedral glass.  The tints of Chartres, Notre Dame, Cologne are reflected in their autumnal DNA.   The air is bright with their departure; the earth and streets are crisp with the trees’ brittle sacrifices.

In the mid-17th century, Spanish naturalists stumbling through the Americas took note of a pretty tree with leafs shaped like clipped stars and a clear, perfumed gum that looked like liquid amber.


350 years later their happy discovery is alive still, in backyards and cities, celebrating the cyclical weather, the migratory temperatures.


Liquidambar styraciflua is known for its fluid colors and fragrant liquor.  It bleeds a clear or tinted resin reminiscent of the musky scent of burning amber.  This aromatic hemorrhage is what gives the tree its name.

The Amber’s round seed pods create sheet-music when superimposed against telephone lines.  Its roots are discreet.  Sidewalks do not buckle or erupt into mountain ranges that wait for pedestrians to stumble over, like unsuspecting gods.

It is used for decoration; above succulents and firs, cedar, oak and spruce its colors wink with whimsical flamboyance.  During the summer its canopy is lush with green youth.  By year’s end breezes rustle the crisp leaves like a mother running her fingers through her child’s tousled hair.

It drinks from the subterranean rivers that tumble through the earth in a web of fertile tributaries.  The green elixir permeates the body of the tree, creating an ornament that glories in the year and celebrates the four changing quarters.  It is a reminder of the comfort of change; the knowledge that beauty does not end but renews itself in perpetual rebirths:  that it lasts forever.



10 responses to “Forever Amber

  1. I’ve never heard of this tree but after reading this I wish it grew in my area. I think it would get too cold here though, in our Cascade mountains. The leaves remind me of a trident maple.

  2. Wow! What eloquence oozes from those first two paragraphs? De-lovely. Poetic. I adore “they live their evergreen lives [glossing over, you know what you wrote] favorite coat in July or refuses…” Fabulous!

  3. I had a huge Liquid Amber tree in my backyard in Sydney. Many a battle was fought amongst my sons using the “spikes” as ammunition. The tree was large enough to hang a hammock from and a stag-horn was attached to the trunk. It really was a magnificent tree (but it was a bugger to keep the pavers clear of spikes! )

  4. “seed pods create sheet-music when superimposed against telephone lines” – What a delightful image. A beautiful, poetic post to remind us of that cycle of change and rebirth manifest in the ‘melting prisms’ of leaves. I’m not that familiar with the amber tree, but through this wonderful writing, I can see, smell and touch it. Thanks Aubrey.

  5. My goodness! I recognized the tree, but never had heard of it. Finally, I found the answer. It’s also known as sweetgum, which does grow in Texas. What you call (quite correctly) round seed pods we call “sweet gum balls”. When I visited Leadbelly’s grave outside Shreveport, I collected sweet gum balls as souvenirs.

    Your description is far more memorable and poetic and what our arborists have to say about this beauty.

  6. Wikipedia says this about the book whose title is your title:

    “Despite its banning, Forever Amber was the best-selling US novel of the 1940s. It sold over 100,000 copies in its first week of release, and went on to sell over three million copies. Forever Amber was also responsible for popularizing ‘Amber’ as a given name for girls in the 20th century.”

    As shoreacres mentioned in the previous comment, the sweetgum grows in Texas (though not in Austin, except for a few that people have planted). I saw plenty of them changing color during a November trip to the Ozarks and far eastern Oklahoma. Change can be beautiful, but it isn’t always so in our lives.

  7. I was admiring all the lovely golds & oranges & reds on the way/from the gym today. I really wanted a maple tree for my yard but the city gave me something which doesn’t turn colors. I’m still thinking of replacing it.

  8. Used to have an ancient Amber in our front yard and every year kids walking to the park in fall/winter would stop and gather up handfuls of leaves… What a beautiful and evocative piece you’ve written, and thank you for bringing up a lovely memory.

  9. What a beautiful, eloquent tribute to a tree, and to nature’s cycles of change and renewal. Thank you, Aubrey – it’s wonderful how your words send thoughts on a quiet, drifting journey. Like autumn leaves of the mind. Lovely!

  10. Lisa – I think the amber might get a little testy with the frost. Your magnificent forests would quite overwhelm it!

    la d. – Thank you so much; looking forward to another year of oozing!

    Aussie – Boyfriend and I often had to swerve out bicycles around those spiky pods; neither of us look forward to being pitched over the handlebars due to an unfortunate pod/rider confrontation.

    fifepsychogeography – I’m so glad I can introduce you to a bit of prettiness that lives on my part of the world; so as you’ve shown me images and stories from your part: thanks so much!

    shoreacres – ‘sweet gum balls’ such an appealing name for nature’s little jail cells, harboring future populations! I also like ‘liquid amber’; it captures so exactly the clear coloring…sometimes the scientists do get it right!

    Steve – I looked up the title to confirm I had the title of the post right, and was very surprised to learn of its banning. And I had no idea of the sudden popularity of the name of Amber. The perversity of parents!

    leendadll – The liquid amber should be very popular with the city, as its roots are so non-invasive. These photos were taken from the sidewalks – our neighbors didn’t plant them, as far as I know.

    Vickie – Ancient trees, armfuls of leaves: such a wonderful image you’ve brought to me – and now I wish we were on the cusp of autumn once again!

    bookishnature – ‘quiet, drifting journey’: here’s to another year of such deep and evocative voyages!

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