These days, the branches of trees trace the sky in a labyrinth of limbs, and the evergreens are dulled from cold. For us here in the Midwest, it’s the middle of winter, when one day the clouds are a heavy gray and the next sunny and billowing white. On days when the weather isn’t piercingly cold, a walk through the neighborhood or woodlands refreshes a mind dimmed by the interior landscapes that are our homes.
When walking through woods, especially when there is snow, there’s a unique quietness. It is a penetrating silence that can make us aware that the Holy is near — the Creator in his creation.
In the absence of vibrant summer greens or the riotous colors of autumn, our visual senses are lessened, and we become more attuned to sounds. We are aware of frozen grass and sticks softly crunching under our feet, muffled by snow. We notice the fluttering of a bird nearby, and we can hear the delicate rattling of leaves still present on trees.
There are a few genera of trees, including the oak, that retain their leaves through dormancy and into spring, a marvel termed marcescence — from Latin “to fade.” This phenomenon is caused by the lack of enzymes responsible for leaf drop (abscission) at the base of the leaf stem (petiole).
There are theories about why this occurs. Scientists speculate that the adaptive process is a defense mechanism, meant to discourage browsing. It is thought that herbivores, such as deer, are discouraged by the dry unappetizing leaves that surround the nutritious twigs.
There is also a theory that trees, such as oak and beech that often grow in infertile and dry sites, retain their leaves until spring — when new expanding buds push the petiole away from the twig — to build up the forest detritus. Leaf droppings at that time will break down and release nutrients depleted during the winter months, and the new covering on the forest floor will help retain moisture during the growing season.
Often young understory trees and shrubs will hold pale yellow-green leaves until late winter in what is proposed as a lessened photosynthesis. This phenomenon is thought to be a means to compensate for the depletion of sunlight from a dense canopy during the previous summer.
For those of us who live in a hardiness zone where deciduous trees flame out in glory as dormancy sets in, the clasping of leaves may seem a curiosity. At first, it appears that there is a holding on to what is dead and useless. Looking deeper at why this occurs we see the benefits behind the process.
This is reflective of our human nature as well — to experience a durational rest. Some of us can quickly release hurts or mistakes, whether our own or those inflicted by others. For others, as with the clasping oak, there is a slow-release process, where some safeguards are beneficial to allowing natural developments to unfold. So it is for us, that there is a gradual letting go as new growth emerges.
The “mighty oak” that thrives in inhospitable conditions and yet prospers has a way to protect new growth and find nourishment from what is thought useless. Our faith tells us much the same, that there is a strengthening grace in what seems contrary to gain.
Margaret Rose Realy is a Benedictine Oblate and the author of “A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and How to Grow Them” (OSV, 2022).