This guest post by author Leaf Seligman is a lyrical reflection about this season, our core selves, the teachings of trees, and the resurgence of old griefs. Reading this is like beholding a photograph that has faded but fills us with tenderness all the same.:
“Bathed in the beauty of such radiant fall foliage,these days, I cannot help but turn to the trees for inspiration. It’s not lost on me that deciduous trees appear most exquisite in peak color right before they lose their leaves.
Autumn reminds us of the impending winter—not just the annual season but the metaphorical season of our lives. A time I am in now at sixty, the decade my mother assures me will be my best. In the autumn of our lives, hopefully we know ourselves and have made peace with the conditions and circumstances that shaped us. By autumn, we have found our authentic expression, our passions and we take note of our gifts, synthesizing them and offering them to the world in meaningful ways, with a bit more kindness and clarity than we did in summer or spring.
By the time winter appears, we recognize the shortness of our days. Like animals preparing to hibernate, we prioritize, conserving finite energy for what matters most. The frivolous and unnecessary: be it banter, decorum or social obligations, fall away, leaving a core self sometimes diminished, sometimes intact, that preserves the essence of who we are. And while the trees with their bare branches focus inward, quietly reinventing spring, we like the fallen leaves, contemplate our moment of final release.
The trees suffer with us, and long before us, in the arc of their four hundred million years on planet earth. Trees know everything there is to know about loss and resilience, devastation and renewal, bravery and death. Trees, connected underground by fungal networks that extend over hundreds of acres, experience loss as we do. Each loss we experience touches all the other losses, as if linked by underground pools, so that grief rises and falls like a water table. Some days we feel saturated, and other days, dry.
When grief rises, it can be a subtle sensation, a slow dampening of energy, or it can crest like a mighty swell, toppling us. Either way, it rises to gain our attention, insisting we notice the loss, honoring what or who has been and is no longer, summoning a presence of an absence we might otherwise overlook in the busyness of our days.
Think of trees hollowed out in the center or with a scoop of side canopy removed to accommodate utility lines. The trees do nothing to mask what’s missing. This we can learn from them: to honor the losses, the diminishments, and not shrink from acknowledging them. Many of us know the experience of inhabiting a loss as others tiptoe around the perimeter, afraid to say anything when what we desire most is the opportunity to speak of the person who has died or is ill; instead of pretending the source of grief isn’t there, we welcome the chance to recognize it. Any of us might worry, feel uncomfortable bringing someone up for fear we will upset the grieving person; yet like the trees, we don’t magically forget that we had another child or spouse or dear friend who suddenly isn’t there. We wake each day knowing and being able to acknowledge it lessens the burden.
Trees bear their scars. Unlike us they do not cover them. They simply incorporate them into the bark and branch of existence, into the wholeness of being.
A great value to glimpsing a tree with a scar from a decades-old lightning strike or pestilence is the reminder that old griefs re-emerge and they, too, need acknowledgment. There are so few places and spaces in our lives to honor old losses by name: to take a moment or longer to acknowledge that sometimes, the missing returns, even increases, with the passing of decades. I miss my brother who died almost fifty years ago, more now than I missed him in my thirties or forties. I invite you to consider the long lost losses that resurface. Imagine being able to invoke them, to honor them, to make a space the way trees retain the shape of lost branches while still growing new leaves.
In the last year, when my own grief surfaced with a force that often dropped me to my knees, I reached deep into the stores of faith and friendship that have sustained me over the years. Like the trees that need wind resistance to develop deep roots, we draw on the winds that might otherwise destabilize us if we don’t reach out, if we don’t dig deep into the sources of sustenance. And having the opportunity to stand our ground can deepen the conviction that roots us to core principles, to the values that shape us.
.We all can do this. Trees have been around for four hundred million years. They can teach us the virtues of community and sacrifice, compassion and ingenuity: just consider photosynthesis—resilience, endurance and legacy with an economy of prose and abundance of example.
Whatever the season surrounding us, and whatever season of life we inhabit in this precious moment, we are never alone. We dwell among the great teachers who tower over us and occasionally grow underfoot, springing up in yards and meadows, reclaiming land once farmed or grazed. The trees exemplify life’s longing for itself and summon us to do the same.
On this radiant day, a shower of blessing in the form of autumnal leaves, yielding, may we pause in the presence of our arboreal elders, welcoming wisdom, taking heart. May we stand in our truths as resolutely as trees, hallowed by what hollows us, strengthened by winds that sink our roots deep so that our branches grow sturdy and wide”
Leaf Seligman began writing during her Tennessee childhood. She has taught writing in colleges, jails, prisons, and community settings since 1985, and worked as a minister, jail chaplain, a youth services caseworker and a restorative justice practitioner. Her books include A Pocket Book of Prompts, Opening the Window: Sabbath Meditations, and From the Midway: Unfolding Stories of Redemption and Belonging.