We’re in the deep midwinter, the season of turning towards the light in hope—Chanukah began at sunset on 18th, it’s Solstice today as I write and Christmas on Sunday—festivals in which the hard times are set against the blessings that persist and those to come.
In my forest garden, the apple trees have been the last to let go of their leaves, one with still a few to go, but the larger trees let go earlier. Trees, as I noted before, have so much to teach us about life and also about death and letting go.
Letting go to rest and restore
Unlike a friend’s tortoise, they don’t quite hibernate, but they pare themselves back in a way that speaks powerfully to our busy lives. Winter is a time for contraction, for going inwards, for rest, restoration and being with loved ones. And yet the modern world makes little concession to these natural cycles and for many of us winter is as frenetic as any other time, perhaps more so with added social events (not all of them chosen) or the pressure of deadlines before any holiday break.
Somehow in this we need to navigate some space for stillness. This is Tove Jansson’s take on finding rest and sanctuary in winter in her short story ‘The Squirrel’ from The Winter Book.
She began sweeping, painstaking and calm. She liked sweeping. It was a perfect day, a day without dialogue. There was nothing to defend or accuse anyone of; everything had been cut out, all those words that could have been other words or might simply have been out of place and led to great changes. Now there was nothing but a warm cottage full of morning light, herself sweeping and the friendly sound of coffee beginning to simmer. The room with its four windows simply existed and justified itself; it was safe and had nothing to do with any place where you could shut anything in or leave anything out. She drank her coffee and thought about nothing at all, resting.
If we are able to take more time in winter, to be more receptive, to be more than rushing around doing, it’s a great winter gift. The trees let go of their leaves and slow down. But letting go and winter also carry some harder metaphors—there is a bleakness when everything is cut back to the bone, a time of loss.
Letting go to face the loss
And yet this loss—the bareness of the earth, the paring back of every tree, the starkness of frost, the contraction to life indoors—they are a particular type of loss… one that is rooted in going to ground in order to flourish again. In the losses are new beginnings—some not yet imagined.
Last year and up to February of this year I got to know my new environment in France by observing the shift of the seasons every 3-5 days and writing a haiku. This year I’ve honed and edited the collection and it will be called at world’s end, begin.
Finistère, where I live, means the end of the earth, the end of the world. And sometimes an international move in a pandemic when I was unable to travel to family for so long felt like the end of the world. And some days—when the roof leaked or our farming neighbour stole the wild geese and duck from our garden, when the garden flooded or when we couldn’t get back to the UK in time to say goodbye to my husband’s dad, Ming, who died last June—it felt like we’d taken ourselves to the end of the world. There was a lot of winter throughout that year, but it was also a beginning and full of so much good—new neighbours, the nearby town of Huelgoat, the forest all around our house, the adventure of a home we would create together… Endings and beginnings go together, sometimes in the most unlikely and unlooked for ways.
Winter, with its bleakness provides the metaphorical equivalent of the blank page. That empty expanse can be intimidating or exhilarating or both at once. And it’s not by coincidence that so many festivals of light from different religions fall at this time of year. When the world gets dark we look for the light. Winter, for all its cold bleakness and messages of letting go, also provides us with rich metaphors of hope. This is another quote from Tove Jansson’s The Winter Book. This time from the story ‘The Dark’.
When the log-fire is alight, we draw up the big chair. We turn out the lights in the studio and sit in front of the fire and she says: “Once upon a time there was a little girl who was terribly pretty and her mummy liked her so awfully much…” Every story has to begin in the same way, then it’s not so terribly important what happens. A soft, gentle voice in the darkness and one gazes into the fire and nothing is dangerous. Everything else is outside and can’t get in. Not now or at any time.
Letting go to live with paradox
Like most great truths, winter’s message is one of paradox—darkness, bleakness, letting go and death are of a piece with the light, warmth, expansiveness and life. Trees are mavens of both facets of this paradox, experts at living and at letting go. An oak tree, for example, can take three hundred years to grow, another three hundred years to flourish and live, and three hundred years to die.
This last phase is known as negative morphogenesis and in this stage the tree contracts or ‘grows down’. Writing in Old Growth, an anthology about trees edited by Robin Wall Kimmerer, William Bryant Logan puts it like this:
Growing down is not just decay. It is as active and improvisational as was the building up. Roots are damaged or die. Branches are lost to storms. Hollows open up on the trunk and are colonized by fungi like the wonderful and aptly named dryad’s saddle. The tree’s solid circulation system resolves itself back into discrete pathways, some living and some dead. It becomes obvious that scaffold branches were once separate trees, as they become so again, some maintaining their root systems and others losing them. Now the tips of the higher branches begin to die back. Instead of growing new reiteration branchlets on their undersides, as they did in their youth, they now sprout perfect little trees of their species on the tops of the branches, between the trunk and the dead tips. It is a complete restatement of the thematic tune, happening dozens of times among the still-living branches.
Letting go to rise again
The final stage of dying has the wonderful name of ‘phoenix regeneration’:
Little by little, a tree loses its crown, first small branches, then larger ones. Roots decay. The circulation system that carries water aloft to the leaves starts to break down. When no leaves emerge on a branch, it can no longer feed itself. It dies and falls to the ground, but the tree does not give up. When a giant that was once ninety feet tall has shrunk to a height of twenty feet, little images of itself may sprout from the lower trunk or even from the root flare, wherever a living connection between root and branch survives… It is not impossible that one or the other of those last sprouts — if only they can generate their own stable root systems — may grow once again to ninety feet tall… Potentially, every tree is immortal.
Unlike trees we are not potentially immortal, though many faith traditions have strong beliefs in their own versions of phoenix regeneration. But whether one of those traditions is ours or not, we can experience such regeneration in small but vital ways. Every time we let go of patterns not serving us. Every time we navigate transitions in life—whether graciously withdrawing our territory as children become adults or letting go of work for retirement or moving in to different life phases… And we go through phoenix regenerations each time we begin a new piece of writing, and each time we have the courage to edit writing, excising what needs to be let go to let the heart of it emerge.
In the stillness of winter, we find rest, we face loss, we look at what might be germinating, what might fill the next blank page of both our writing or lives and we look towards the return of the light while the trees look towards the new leaves of spring.
However you keep this season, I hope it brings blessings of rest and restoration as you become a new story.