I live on a ridge that shoots in from the City boundaries in the northwest and descends, first gradually and then by leaps and bounds, as it reaches towards sea level in the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.
At our point in this descent, a downward-sloping wind tunnel has been created so that the “weather” coming in from Canada and the Mid-West barrels through it, two or more times each year, snapping trees in its wake like match sticks.
In recent years, two of our trees have borne the brunt. A much-loved magnolia was simply uprooted in one barrage and, a winter or so later, the maple that had been its closest companion was essentially sheered in half.
Since what remained of the maple was pretty ungainly, I could have had it removed but then the most treasured trees on this plot of land—a huge American chestnut, a 200-year-old tulip poplar, and a previously-admired gingko—would have been totally exposed to the gale-force winds.
To begin to rectify the situation, I planted a hardy young silver linden near the spot where the magnolia had fallen, but it will be years before it provides much of a windbreak. So I’m also counting on the half-maple to do what it can, and I’ve been watching it closely–for several months now—as it works to repair and rebalance itself. Among other things, I’ve been surprised at how its “wounds” have closed, where it has decided to sprout new growth, and how it’s been “filling itself back in” from the half arm and lopsided “Y’ of a trunk that remained.
Despite a hard couple of years, there’s been something assessing and almost deliberate about its healing– like a self-powered erector set of verticals, horizontals and angles reaching again for the sky.
My maple-watching preoccupation probably explains my eagerness to read “Trees Don’t Rush to Heal from Trauma and Neither Should We” when this explainer of an article popped into my Short List on Twitter this week.
I wasn’t drawn to the take-aways that trees might be sharing with us (because I’m fairly certain that they don’t think about us enough to offer us much advice), but because of the title’s suggestion that trees decide not to rush when they’re recovering from calamity, that they take their time because they need to get it right. I wanted to know more about that particular drive.
The author, it said, was a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, more specifically of microbiology and molecular plant genetics, which made the piece even more promising. I was even undaunted when I learned that she’d written a book that someone at her publisher had decided to call Lessons From Plants, as if readers needed to be told about “what’s in it for them” in order to pick up this book. I would have gone with The Amazing Ways That Trees Survive and Even Heal From Trauma as a title—less anthropomorphic and more to the point—but anyway, the author’s name is Beronda Montgomery and she managed to pack several interesting insights into her fairly short piece.
Montgomery began by noting how the period of late fall and into winter may be the best time of year to observe the ways that our trees are resting up and recovering before launching a new season of growth in the spring. Particularly in deciduous trees—like our maple—“the carefully orchestrated process of leaf senescence begins [and] the hidden structures of trees emerge” during the late-fall and winter months. She continued:
During the autumnal senescence, the tree suspends active growth and recovers the nutrients of its leaves. This process occurs first by degrading the green chlorophylls that drive photosynthesis – the means by which plants harness light energy – and then converting complex compounds into soluble sugars and amino acids, which are banked over winter for use by the tree in the following spring. Once the nutrients are resorbed [I never heard that word before either, but it says exactly what it means], the tree begins to drop its leaves.
Once a tree loses its leaves (and the leaves of nearby trees are no longer cloaking it in shadow), tree-observers can also see how a tree has been faring in previous months from the abundance (or lack) of winter buds that have appeared, the proliferation of new branches, and whether the wounds that the tree trunks have suffered seem to be healing.
Montgomery says that the wound healing process, in particular, happens in two stages: “an initial, rapid chemical phase, followed by a slower, long-term physical adaptation.” In the first stage, trees produce phytochemicals with antimicrobial/antifungal properties that prevent disease from entering trees through open wounds, leading to eventual decay. After these defenses are mounted, trees begin to produce a soft tissue “callus” that hardens gradually over time. This several-month process keeps the wound free from infection while promoting oxygenation before it produces long-term, protective scar tissue.
It’s the slowness of the second-half of this healing process–all the time that the tree needs–that is most noteworthy to Montgomery:
Covering a wound prematurely simply to keep the damage out of sight, without attention to openly dealing with it through cleansing and therapeutic care, can lead to a festering of issues rather than a healthy progression towards healing, reformulation, growth and thriving.
That progression includes the slow restoration “of sugar-transporting phloem tissues and water-passing xylem structures” that allow a tree to continue to pursue its core purpose of photosynthesis while it accommodates environmental factors like the availability of sunlight, neighboring trees that are competing or cooperating with it, the available nutrients in the soil, and the other threats (like insect pests) that it faces.
You might call this progression “healing fast and slow,” the opposite of a band-aid over an injury before quickly moving on. In Montgomery’s “wound-healing paradigm,” while infection threats have to be countered quickly, repair needs to happen through cleansing flows of oxygen over extended periods of time, the very slow hardening of initially porous scar tissue, and the even slower re-building of core infrastructure.
Yes, it’s the horizontal, vertical and angling branches I could see in September but it’s also the slowly revitalizing engines of the tree trunks that are far more visible to the roving eye in the months of December, January and February.
There is a necessary time for repair, and in a tree it is measured slowly or the repairs won’t succeed at all.
Unlike plants teaching us lessons, perhaps the seasons and how we can learn adapt to them actually do.
On the backcover of Katherine May’s 2020 book, which is called Wintering, she conjures not the season but a kind of “respite” and “recuperative states of mind” that the season of winter teaches us something about.
For her, “to winter” is to learn how to flourish in lean times, when we not longer have the spring’s freshness, the summer’s warmth or the autumn’s harvest to fall back on—when we’ve been stripped down to the basics and must re-charge our flickering batteries. May writes:
Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting…
On the other hand, enabling healing and repair in ourselves can be easier said than done. Unlike a wounded maple tree that “knows” what to do “first” and then “more slowly and continuously” over time, we often seem to lack the evolutionary roadmap that can enable us to confront, repair and recover—that is, to make something that’s harder, stronger and more resilient than we had before in the “crucible” that May identifies.
For her, wisdom about wintering didn’t come because she chose to encounter it one day. “However it arrives,” May writes, “wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.” In her own life, she needed to learn how to cope and then recover after waves of disruption roiled the core of her existence. (Her husband fell ill and nearly died. Her own health declined to the point that she could no longer work. Her 6-year old son became too anxious to go to school. Many of the things that May had counted on as a partner, as a professional and as a mother now felt “provisional and unsettled.”) In her “fallow season,” May had to learn to admit the extent of her disorientation and unhappiness, and that validating these feelings neither encouraged them nor made them worse. Instead, by making a place for her desolation she began to learn how “to winter” through it, something that the natural world already knows instinctively.
May’s notion of “wintering through”—which she never tires of visualizing with the range of her poet’s eye—is what’s most remarkable about her book. The grounding metaphor not only separates a time of injury, respite and repair from healthier and happier times—a liminal season that’s entirely apart from the fatter ones that came before—but also activates the transformational qualities of inhabiting (and even mastering) the challenges of a place that’s as hard as this, at least when we refuse to deny its harsh realities by blaming ourselves for its challenges or attempting to sedate them away.
We must stop believing that these times in our lives are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite the winter in. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.
For this very wise person, wintering is a state where all of us will find ourselves eventually, and more than that, where all of us need to find ourselves from time to time in order to discover the native resourcefulness that we have to repair ourselves, to recover our footing and to evolve.
Wintering may be something we need to give ourselves now, when the ground outside is hard and the trees bare, or at some other time of the calendar year, but it can be confronted with greater hope given the familiarity and color that’s imparted in Katherine May’s deeply compassionate book.
Here is a link if you’re interested in a thoroughly enjoyable, hour-long conversation with May about the thoughts and experiences behind Wintering. And if you find yourself hooked, you can also listen regularly to her “Wintering Sessions” podcast. I think that you’ll find her voice to be a consolation worth marshaling for this time and for any difficult time ahead.
This post was adapted from my February 6, 2022 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning, and sometimes I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe (and not miss any of them) by leaving your email address in the column to the right.
Last weekend, on December 11, 2022, my weekly post revisited this discussion about “wintering” and added to it. If you’re interested, it’s called: “A Calendar with 52 Seasons.”