In the bleak mid-winter …

Mostly sunny days here these past few weeks has resulted in Christmas decorations magically appearing on more and more houses. It seems we are fair-weather decorators here in the East. I, too, was late with my ladder and lights, but I’m not sure it was the weather that held me back. I’m one of the few year-round residents in my area so I enjoy the sight of more lights at night. The more the merrier this time of year is a good fit. I usually dig up a wee tree from the woods and “plant” it in a pot in my house over the holiday. In the spring, I return it to the woods. There’s often an argument overheard each year between buying a real Canadian conifer or a fake tree. I lean in with the pro real tree argument of the debate. It seems an obvious decision where 90% of the artificial trees purchased in 2019 (Nature Conservancy December 2019) were manufactured in China and not a bit of it is biodegradable. For every Christmas tree harvested, three seedlings will be planted to take its place, which keeps the tree farm flourishing and capture of carbon from the atmosphere considerable. “Reforestation cuts more than 30% of carbon emissions.” Most of us know the arguments.

We have only had a dusting of snow so far this season, which is more common than not. But it seems that every flake of snow that has fallen is clinging to the coniferous trees as if infatuated with the branches, wanting to rest there upon the needles, while doing their part for the in the bleak mid-winter theme. I shivered inside my coat on my morning walk through the forest and as I admired the trees … it got me thinking.

It is tempting to hibernate in the winter, to slow our lives down and curl up in a cozy chair with a favourite book. Bears find a comfortable den and doze off this time of year. Frogs settle down on pond bottoms, resting above the mud so they can breathe through their skin, the cold water holding more oxygen than the warm. Trees must hibernate where they stand; there is no comfy den for them, no pond bottom. Fewer species of trees can be found in the north because few species are tough enough to survive winter’s extremes. The bark with its air spaces provides insulation for the tree. They lose their leaves to reduce water loss, while the waxy coating of conifer’s needles don’t allow for water loss. Trees start preparing in late summer, unlike us who, after the first heavy snowfall, decide we better hurry and get our snow tires on, jumping into the queue of the poorly prepared. Trees are wise and know how to change the structure of their cells to prevent damage from water crystalizing. Mostly hemlock surround me here, their softly needled branches still full, shielding me from wind and snow as they tower over my wee house, tall and majestic, reminding me of their value and importance, and my relative insignificance. The maples and birches have shed their leaves. I did my part and dug their leaves out of my rain gutters. The trees have slowed their breathing, so we whisper to one another now, our voices quieted by the cold.

Trees have fed the creativity of more than one poet and writer of prose. Anna Botsford Comstock wrote Trees at Leisure in 1902, writing “the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies.” She knew all too well that a tree “brings serene comfort to the human heart”.

In summer, when the trees are heavy with leaves, it’s difficult to separate out the individuals, yet I have my favourites, the ones I lean against to rest, the ones who turn the brightest of orange, the ones who grow tall and straight. I sometimes hurry on my walk when it gets cold, my shoulders pulled up, my head down, but today I paused and lifted my eyes and gratitude washed over me. The trees are individuals in winter, each standing on their own, leaning into winter, resting but ready. I like to imagine they are chatting with me. The chainsaws are silent, thankfully. The building season has ended, but the felling of trees to make room for homes has merely paused. I am reminded of Joyce Kilmer and her poem learned in childhood. “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.” She was right.