January has the nickname of “Cabin Fever Month” where I’m from. It’s a month of bitter temperatures and snow storms. In most cases I think everybody’s a little hung over and still recovering from the holiday season. Anybody sensitive to the lack of sunlight will tell you these dark days are fuel for depression. That’s what makes getting your ass out the door and getting some fresh air so important. It’s a process of letting go of some of that built-up gunk in your gears and working it out the old fashioned way. A walk anywhere will do, but for maximum benefits take a hike in a park or on nature trails.
If you live somewhere that gets some of that bitter Northeast winter weather, you’ve probably stumbled on some stubborn trees still holding onto leaves. They aren’t even attractive; masses of crispy and long-dead leaves cling stubbornly to branches. It might be something you’ve noticed before, wondered why these trees have such a hard time letting go of their leaves. Why didn’t the wind just blow them off like it did for other trees? Just shake ’em lose and watch them blow away like it did everyone else?
If you’re like me you’re feeling introspective during your winter walk. You’ll draw some lines from your cabin-fever induced depths of January blues and think, “There’s a message here. Has to be.”
You’re right, there is, but it requires a better understanding of trees, so pop on your Botany Helmet because we’re going in.
It Isn’t the Wind
The trees that lose their leaves are known as “deciduous” trees. They grow new leaves in the springtime using the leaves as a means to soak up sunlight and help provide food for the tree. The tree draws water and nutrients through its roots while sunlight powers the process that converts it all to usable sugars. That’s a simplified understanding of photosynthesis. Is it all coming back to you now? Good, I knew it would.
When the days get shorter trees will begin to drop their leaves. They hold onto whatever nutrients they can store for the winter and spring and start the process of shedding their leaves. There’s more to it, but this isn’t an in-depth science lesson. The really cool thing happens when the trees actually shed their leaves.
It’s natural to assume that trees and plants in general are pretty simple organisms. They just kinda… sit there. It makes sense to think the leaves die and then fall off when a strong enough wind blows into town. In truth it’s actually the trees “cutting” the leaves off themselves in a process called “abscission”.
Tree will begin to grow a layer of cells that separates the leaf from the branch. This process operates like a pair of scissors. The wind helps to knock some leaves off when they’re about ready, but the trees are capable of doing this all on their own.
Some types of trees have a difficult time dropping their leaves, or simply don’t develop the abscission process to the degree other trees do. They hang onto the leaves until springtime and, pop, a new leaf pushes the old one off. Some trees never lose their leaves at all. Every species is different, and there is room for variety even in that.
But Where’s the Message?
Thank you for remembering, reader, that there’s supposed to be a message here that we can apply to our own lives.
Trees aren’t in the business of waiting for the wind to take care of shit. Trees are actively working to shed what’s unnecessary. It isn’t a simple process and it takes energy and effort, but it does work. If a stiff breeze blows through at the right time and helps minimize the load, great. If it doesn’t… well, they’ll still drop the leaves, it’ll just takes a little longer to start letting go.
People might need that extra help more than trees do, but we still need to do our share of the work. Humans are social creatures capable of thinking and communicating our thoughts, our troubles, our grief, our depression. You know that old phrase, “You can’t help somebody unless they’re willing to help themselves”? That applies pretty well to this talk of letting go of what’s ready to drop. Our friends and professional help can offer that bit of a push to help shake things loose, but it’s up to us individually to be ready for it.
When trees cut their leaves it isn’t a process of loss but of growth. Cells with a purpose specifically for abscission get their cue to do their job and cut what’s no longer needed. It’s the same give and take we use when we starting letting go of what’s clogging us up, or preventing us from moving forward. We may let go of a past hurt or broken heart, or make peace with something that’s grieved us to no end, and in a way it feels like we’re tossing that away.
But we aren’t. We’re acknowledging what was but no longer is. We are making room for new people and experiences in our life. It’s a perennial process that might never be painless but also prompts growth and self-understanding. When the time is right, we can take a walk and catch some fresh air and be thankful for that unexpected, stiff breeze to blow.
Plants are pretty amazing, but people are much more so. We take information from the natural world and apply it to our lives in an abstract way.