Tuesday, 11 January 2011


Trees without their leaves is an archetypal image of winter.  They give us some insight into that dark season – the time when creation is at its height; most strong.  Not the usual way of seeing things, I know.  But it is winter that produces lasting results; the growth each of the other seasons contributes largely falls away again and is lost.

I used to think that for the trees, losing their leaves must be the hardest thing.  During autumn the tree appears locked in a struggle that it loses little by little as the sap lessens, eventually failing to sustain the leaves.  Too weak to cling on, the leaves are lost to the bitter wind.  Winter begins and the tree seems to sleep until spring awakens it again.

That view is what we see when looking at a tree from the outside, as it were; as beings that are not-a-tree.  From the 'inside', things look rather different …
Sap rises: the natural consequence of being fibres connecting earth below and sky above.  The warming earth stirs the root system into activity just as the sun fosters sprouting where it can amongst the branches.  The leaves that form need the rising sap; cleaning and re-oxygenating it in return.
Summer is like a down-hill run.  Plenty of rain, plenty of nutrients in the soil, plenty of daylight: how can there not be growth?  This may look like a time when the tree is growing – its most fecund period.  However as in spring, the tree in summer is doing nothing special: it is simply responding naturally to the abundance surrounding it.
Surely autumn must be the most creative time, for this is when the tree bears fruit?  Seeds of new trees are formed and released to grow into new trees.  But the seeds are not lasting results either.  Spring buds open into leaves and flowers.  Summer growth blooms but inevitably fades again.  The nuts that are formed are static offerings, made as a consequence of growth at its peak, with nowhere else to go.  They fall.  Some die, some sprout new shoots.  But their fate is quite independent of the tree that completed its part when the nut fell.
The fallen leaves are no loss.  As the strength of the sun fades and the ground cools, the sap rises less strongly and can no longer sustain the leaves, now as large as they will be.  Processing nutrition is no longer necessary once the nuts have formed, so the oxygen once provided by the leaves is wanted no longer.  It is a relief when their demand for sustenance diminishes.  And a release when the wind takes them; for the tree suffers less from the gales and dying foliage will grow mould and decay well away from branches that bore them.
However, not all of the new growth has been blown away. There are new shoots amidst the branches and buds on the older wood, too.  They are not ready yet.  Winter has yet to make them what they will become.

The role of winter is to turn the fruits of the rest of the year into a real tree: to 'true' or test what is, nearly to destruction, until it is as it should be, without weakness.  Winter dessicates the new stems: forming an exterior crusty enough to protect future sap.  It toughens these new branches so that not only will they be able to stand up to the gales but they will have the internal structure needed to bear spring's new growth.

Spring and summer provide the raw material and autumn strips away what is no longer needed.  But it is winter that forms the tree itself.  It makes roots and branches that will endure, strong enough to bear roots and branches of their own: the structure that we call 'a tree'.