From The Overstory Richard Powers:
“Night falls early, signaling the trees to drop their sugar-making project, shed all vulnerable parts, and harden up. Sap falls. Cells become permeable. Water flows out of the trunks and concentrates into anti-freeze. The dormant life just below the bark is lined with water so pure that nothing is left to help it crystalize.”
Yesterday, February 1st, marked the day that many consider “mid-winter.” People celebrated our days getting noticeably longer. But, it’s still quite cold here in the Northeast US, we still have more hours of darkness than light, and the sun is still so low in the southern sky that it barely fills our windows with its warmth before it’s down below the horizon. The ground is frozen, and our gardens—except for our one patch of kale and collards—are brown, dotted with some last dried remnants of flowers and greens here and there. It seems that everything outside in mid-winter is still “dead.”
But--we know that down beneath the surface, where warmth still lies, there is life. We also know that at the swollen edges of the barren tree branches there is life, a life that answers the call to “keep on growing.” As winter began, the trees and plants have shifted from making energy by using sunlight through their leaves to using stored sugar now to grow their roots in the winter soil, which is generally warmer down below the surface. Trees also store less water in their roots in winter to prevent the roots from freezing and to allow them to continue to spread. They keep on growing.
Let’s now get to the “roots” of how we humans, whose lives are deliberately sheltered (and thereby disconnected) from the natural world around us, answer that same call to “keep on growing.” Of course, there is the cliched advice to “take up a winter hobby” or “read more books” or “clean your closets” in order to feel a sense of progress in this time of midwinter. But are these things really ways of “growing”? Especially if we think of the growing as spreading roots that will allow for even more growth come spring. So, perhaps we need to think about growing in mid-winter a little differently.
Trees have shifted from absorbing energy to using that which is stored, so what activities/practices/skills/interests were we involved in during the warmer/lighter months that we should be building on now? Rather than doing something entirely new in mid-winter, we could be building on things we “stored” from the summer and fall. At the same time, just as trees and plants have stored less water to prevent their roots from freezing, what have we done that we can use now to better protect ourselves from winter’s darkness and cold? After all, there are more than six weeks until the Spring Equinox.
If we think of our lives as having “roots”—we can think of the ways we can protect them but at the same time allow them to grow. We can focus on just one particular skill or interest that we have or use, in our work or in our home lives, and use this time to advance it. Maybe we enjoy writing but do not get to use it as much as we’d like at work or at home. Now is the time to focus on that skill, practice it more: taking more time and care when writing a work email or when writing notes from a meeting; taking the time to write a letter to a friend or family member. Then, when the longer, warmer, busier days come, you have honed a skill that can be put to broader use with greater ease. Think about the pure water the trees have stored. Use this time to find a purity of focus.
Think about utilizing the wintertime rather than trying to escape from it. Nature is at work now preparing for spring bloom. What can you do to strengthen your roots and to prepare to bloom? Winter should not be just about hunkering down and hiding; it’s about using that time to get ready to emerge.