Where do the trees go during winter?
The part of them that grows and is alive? It seems to just vanish.
They make flowers during spring that spray pollen into the air, filling the wind with their powdery essence. In the summer if you go out at night and listen you can actually hear them moving, hear the leaves growing bigger, pressing upward and outward, stretching further toward the sky. In the fall they turn brilliant golden, burning bright against cold grey clouds. But then the leaves fall, the flowers are long gone, nothing left is growing. It’s as if they have been frozen in time, their life suspended and bodies reduced to bare skeletal form.
Where do they go? The part of them that was pushing upward in the spring and summer, it seems now to push down – down into the trunk and further into the roots, beneath the surface of the earth.
But what do they do down there? And why? Do they dream, like we dream during sleep? Do they reflect on everything that has happened over the past year, deciding what they would do differently next time? Do they need to descend deep into the earth and its darkness to touch some subterranean force, to understand fully what life is before they can continue on with their exuberant reach up toward the light? Maybe that’s it.
Maybe whatever they do down there is just as important as what they do up here. Maybe they die back down into their womb to be reborn.
I spent December 21st, 2012, alone in my cabin in the woods. A foot and a half of snow had blanketed the land, the air was cold and dry and there was an incredible silence that can only be created when snow has smothered the earth and weighed down the branches of trees, somehow absorbing every sound until there is nothing left but complete, frozen emptiness. I spent the entire day sitting inside, stepping out only to pee, poo and collect firewood. The snow was deep enough to make walking difficult, it was cold, and really I just didn’t feel like moving. I didn’t feel like reading, writing, working on a project or turning on my little radio. I just sat. Sat and sank down further into my sitting. Sat and sank. Then a few hours later, I snapped out of a trance like state of sunken sitting, and had the most sunken, quiet, dull revelation ever: This is what the trees feel. This is what bears do in their dens. I had never felt the sensation of going in, going down, drawing back from the external world and descending deep into the cold earth in such an overwhelming, palpable way. It kind of scared me.
To a much lesser extent, that was the story of the past winter for me. I slept longer, not having artificial lighting to keep me up during the long nights. I dreamed more during those sleeps, dreams that were rich and filled with images and insights for me to sit with during the short days. I spoke less, not having other humans living with me. I went and visited friends in town, but for the most part sunk into winter alone, quietly, inwardly, like the trees.
As the winter went on it got more interesting. My daily activities were writing, chopping wood, feeding the fire, making food and maybe slicing and hanging deer meat to dry. But at night and during other stretches of idle time, I found myself sinking into and exploring my inner world and realms normally untouched or invisible to me, in the same way that it appeared all other living things on the cold earth were doing. I felt like I was beginning to understand the question where do they go?
As the weeks and months passed, the days became longer and warmer. The snow melted away, grass and nettles and dandelions sprouted up, the buds on trees began to swell; after feeling the dark so acutely, the return of light and life to the land felt monumental. And I could feel it in my body, too. I started being more social again, harvesting things, planning, coming back to the world.
It occurs to me that all of the behaviour I am talking about could be classified as depression. Retreating from social interaction, experiencing a loss of motivation, drawing inward, spending more time alone, sleeping more, all of these are thought of as “bad”, and don’t fit into our expectations of perennial productivity and happiness. Because of the pace of our culture, we have generally become accustomed to fighting off any of those feelings, not going through them and seeing what lies on the other side, afraid of crossing the threshold that trees dance in and out of. We collectively try to live in an endless summer, a state of perpetual happiness and external accomplishment. I like to imagine if a tree had that expectation imposed on it. It would go insane. It is a simple fact that without the cycle of dormancy, which is actually an active process of death and rebirth, the trees outside my cabin could not exist.
We’ve forgotten how to do what the trees do during winter, how to go where they go, and it seems that until we remember we won’t be able to push upward, unfold and grow the way that they do, either.
By this I don’t mean living alone in a cabin in the woods. I mean letting ourselves feel the dark, letting ourselves travel inward, deeply, to find the central place that we come from.