“How dear the woods are! You beautiful trees! I love every one of you as a friend.”
Anne paused to throw her arm around a slim young birch and
kiss its cream-white trunk. Diana, rounding a curve in the path, saw her and laughed.
“Anne Shirley, you’re only pretending to be grown up. I believe when you’re alone
you’re as much as a little girl as you ever were.”
I first read this story as a child, when I too considered trees (as well as rocks, creeks, and animals) my friends. Even long before I had read about Ents, as I child I recognized many tree archetypes:
Several years ago, I lived across the street from Piedmont Park. For two years I walked there almost daily, where I witnessed the trees’ seasonal changes minutely. My botanical neighbors became familiar friends. Also during that time, I reread the Anne series, and my adult perspective lent new appreciation of her response to Diana’s laughter:
“Well, one can’t get over the habit of being a little girl all at once,” said Anne gaily.
“You see, I was little for fourteen years and I’ve only been grown-uppish
for scarcely three. I’m sure I shall always feel like a child in the woods.
The white birch you caught me kissing is a sister of mine. The only difference is,
she’s a tree and I’m a girl, but that’s no real difference.” [emphasis added]
The challenge of simply breaking the habit of being young—a great excuse for one’s behavior, right? Though I am unlikely to kiss any birches in Piedmont Park, I still appreciate trees as my family and my teachers.
Atlanta springtime is so crowded with flowers that I tend not to think of my friends as much. (I have other distractions, too.) Whereas in summer, trees bombard my vision. However, I don’t notice individual trees as much—not because I don’t see them, but because leaves actually make them less distinctive. Otherwise only parts of trunks or branches are visible, so the differences are less obvious. Summer is the season of unity. Up close leaves differ by shape and size, but from a distance I can barely distinguish the nuances of green within the bombardment of that hue.
In autumn, trees begin to move inward. Chlorophyll, the pigment responsible for generating nourishment for trees, decreases. Consequently, other pigments which chlorophyll masks become visible. At this time, trees reveal more distinctions from each other. Buttery yellow gingko leaves make those trees arboreal neon signs.
Red maples are my other favorite.
As leaves continue to wither and fall, the sky becomes increasingly visible as the seasons transition.
Despite it requiring me to wear more layers, winter has always felt more raw to me than summer. Nature is certainly more unshrouded, more exposed—everything equally receptive to light and dark, sun and rain, warmth and cold. In contrast to the coverage from their summer canopy, entire tree trunks and branches are easily visible in winter. Trees are more vulnerable to the elements than any other time of year—bare branches, no protection from winter’s intensity. Trees are then unhidden, uncovered—all the colors, patterns, and textures prominent.
In winter, when trees lack a defining characteristic (leaves), is, ironically, when I feel I see them most directly. In summer, I see massive clumps of green with little trunk stands underneath. In contrast, in winter I suddenly recognize distinctions among trees, as obvious as people are distinct. Tree trunks are backbones, so to speak—what I consider the essence of trees. Furthermore, bare branches show that trees grow “as below, so above”—that branches are essentially roots in air.
Some trees have upright posture. Others have had scoliosis at some point. Others offer seats or benches, as though welcoming company. Others prefer their brances to grow above the level of normal human activity, so that they’re not bothered by our trivialties.
Regardless of appearance, all trees surrender in the same way. They bend in the wind, rather than struggle to remain upright. They remain constant in rain and snow, rather than attempt to escape or avoid it. As the adage goes, “leaves tremble; roots remain still.”
Moreover, trees exist on a timescale far vaster than the human one. Tree wisdom also grows from longevity, the endurance of living in one place. J.R.R. Tolkein beautifully personified this sense of time with Ents:
“For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and
I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in any language, in the Old Entish as you might say.
It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking
a long time to say, and to listen to.” [emphasis added]
With humans, I believe that our truest character is revealed in winter, whether literal or metaphorical. In the comfort of spring or summer conditions, being loving and joyous is easy. In those times, we often do not actually display as much of our character. In other words, having what we want does not require much strength of character to be mature, loving, and generous.
Truly appropriate, then, that winter is a time of introspection, when many set intentions for the seeds to plant in spring. Much more meaningful to gaze inward when one is at the deepest, most genuine, most vulnerable point of self, rather than engaged with the outward, when the leaves are on the branches.
Far more telling is how we live in wintry conditions—if we resist, as humans often do, or surrender, as trees often do. What inspire me most are not people at moments of success or even recovery from failure—because oftentimes people react immaturely after setbacks. I care even less how they celebrate; I am most concerned with how they conduct themselves in adversity. The people who inspire me most are those who, like trees, endure and evolve with grace. Who don’t cave to gut reactions simply for the immediate gratification, without any consideration to later consequences. Who, despite obstacles, betrayals, and challenges, maintain integrity. Who instead of resisting change and impermanence, release attachments and the need for control. Who face their shadows, rather than run from the light that reveals them.
We are most distinct, most truly ourselves, when our spines are uncloaked. And the power of our endurance over many seasons determines how we grow.
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows
how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts,
they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.” ~ Hermann Hesse
∞ Thanks as always to Rhonda Hobgood for generously sharing her photos. Also huge thanks to Maya Lemberg, who, when I requested out of nowhere for a gingko photo, provided one.
SK © 2012