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A Winter State of Mind

It’s a cold day in January and I’ve gone outside to look at the trees. Tall spires of oaks, hickories, and sweetgums greet me.  I notice now the asymmetries of their crowns, the particular arrangement of branches, the way each occupies space. In summer months, when branches are crowded with leaves, these trees are anonymous, blending into the forest—one among many. But now, in these winter months, they’re laid bare.

This pandemic year has laid so many things bare. It has pushed me outside and into the woods just beyond my home in Alabama. These woods have become a necessary retreat, an escape from the stasis of our current days. Even as the world staggered, my family and I found pleasure in rediscovering the nature just within our reach.

On our way to the woods, on either side of the road, we see how the trees bow toward each other. Reaching across the divide, their bony appendages bend into a kind of dome. They are a cathedral, a sanctuary, another sacred life that shares the space with us. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says trees are “prayers,” and I feel them also as talismans, my armor against myself and the tendency to keep my eyes closed.


In winter my thoughts open up. The emptiness pulls me to some unintended focus. In the shortness of days, the fading of light, the austerity of landscape, we are welcomed to turn inward and renew our contract with ourselves and the world. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes of his time in the arctic—a place of perpetual winter. He talks of the “innate beauty of undisturbed relationships.” As he stepped into a pristine realm, one largely untouched by man, he found himself in “conversation with the land,” both actor and voyeur. The horned lark, the caribou, the endless sun. “Like any other landscapes that initially appear barren, arctic tundra can open suddenly, like the corolla of a flower, when any intimacy with it is sought.”

I watch the birds that have come to roost in the trees. They gather in flocks, diving and darting between boughs. Their flight is curious. The robins dip in and out of branches, to the ground and back again. They zoom across my yard and disappear in a thicket of bushes. In the open spaces that winter has created, I see more of the world around me. The top of the red-headed woodpecker, the enterprising jay, the way the crows lag about. The squirrel’s circus act, as it bounds from tree to tree, catching air and thinking nothing of it.

The landscape opens. Blue skies elongate behind leafless trees, and suddenly what was once only above is all around. On cloudless days, I see its color as piercing, a beautiful and crisp blue. It stands stark, saying Look! Here I am! Even after dark my view expands. On the night of the winter solstice, I peered through the woods behind my house and saw clearly the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Just above the horizon, two planets sparkled in tandem. My children fought for the binoculars, stood on chairs, and angled for a better view. We cheered this rare opening of the cosmos.

On many evenings, I’m amazed at the way the sunset spills its colors beyond the trees’ darkening silhouettes, the orange, pinks, and purples seeping into the blank space of sky. The glow of the moon is richer, and it shines with an intensity that seems purposeful. Perhaps it is in on the deal, to push winter’s missive. Casting light on the emptiness around me it asks me what it is I wish to see.


We are wired to seek meaning from our landscapes. E. O. Wilson calls it biophilia, the tendency for humans to build connections with the natural world. There’s a deep happiness that comes with watchfulness, from embedding ourselves within this web of life. But, there are myriad things that compete for our attention and we often ignore the call to put ourselves at nature’s door. We become too comfortable taking a backseat view or even no view at all. The world we’ve created removes us from this space, it purposefully pulls us away. It does not encourage us to seek out the wild things around us. So, we lose this instinct. We deny who we are by resisting this very primal urge.

Nature’s boundaries are permeable, and though we may not get all the way in, the idea is that we are allowed inside. Winter landscapes can feel inaccessible—ice, snow, cold air, what may be seen as only an absence of life and growth, a former skeleton of what was—these things all conspire to keep us from opening ourselves up to the very meditative and instructive space of the season. But we need nature’s lessons more than ever this year. The pandemic has pushed many of us to our limits. We’re feeling the isolation, depletion, and exhaustion of this incredibly challenging time. And so I look to my winter landscape to help make sense of it all.


I am surprised by the prodigious mistletoe in my neighborhood. Round masses of light green nest in empty tree branches. From the ground, it seems like the tree is happy to host these strange visitors. But the mistletoe is opportunistic. It fashions itself from stolen water and nutrients and proliferates itself rapidly. The tree obliges the growth, but at its own expense. The lesson is clear: the trees have their baggage too. Like us, they are burdened by things that compete for their energy and overall well-being. Parasites that show up uninvited, taking from them slowly, but deliberatively. Here in winter they are revealed, exposed, and confronted. As I look to the tops of the trees, I think of how I can make my life simpler, how I might cast off these things that intrude.

But I’ve noticed something else. There’s a pop of color in these empty woods. Dozens of small beech trees have all held their leaves. Beneath the usual pines and hardwoods, they make up part of the understory—the young second growth of a forest. They’re just in my line of sight and it’s hard to miss their warm bronze glow. In summer months, when flush with green, I hardly recognize them. But now, their leaves, bleached and brittle, are distinct. I see them everywhere.

Beech trees are stragglers. While other hardwoods lose their leaves in the fall, as a strategy to survive winter, the beech waits until spring. This retention of dead leaf matter is called marsescence. Though the reason for this behavior is still unclear, it’s possible that the delay is advantageous. Leaves that fall in spring will deliver nutrients to tree roots just in time for new growth and the papery leaves clinging through winter may protect the young cigar-shaped buds from grazing deer.

But I can’t help but think that the beech trees have some other reason for denying this season. That it’s vanity that’s kept them in this limbo, clutching at some version of their former selves. Do they simply crave their summer shape? Or is this their way of advancing to spring?


Winter is a time for waiting. Birds, animals, plants all feel this shift, the slow coming of calm. For deciduous trees, waiting begins as preparation. Buds develop in late summer, while the tree is still actively growing. New leaves remain safely tucked inside, quietly listening for spring’s call. As days shorten and light wanes, the mechanisms that drive growth begin to power down. Photosynthesis slows, green pigments break down, and colors shift to the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, a final fanfare before leaves are shed. Cells begin their tidying, sending food to storage tissues, and refashioning themselves so they are armed against winter’s ice.

What we perceive to be inactivity is really a phase of strategic dormancy. A tree feels these changes and sets itself into motion for the coming rest period. It has been programmed to know exactly what to do. But we humans are not so lucky; we have a hard time grasping these transitions.

Too often we ignore the invitation to stillness. We’re trained to fill the gaps that open in our lives with excesses, to keep the ball of yarn wound tight. But what if we too felt nature’s plea for rest? What if slowness were compulsory? What if we made space for reflection? Contemplation? Attention to the world around us?

Winter is our extended period of darkness. This time is required of trees and of us. For this quiescence is what makes spring’s unfurling even more joyful. This season is a threshold, an opportunity to imagine ourselves new. Part of engaging in this ritual is the act of lingering. It’s holding onto the absence for just a little while, living in this space where things are stripped away, that better enables us to find hope on the other side.