by Nevena Martin
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.’ ‘Very well,’ they answered, ‘do as you say.’ So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.’ Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him. ‘There, in the tent,’ he said. Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”
At the onset of the Covid pandemic here in the States, there was a run on toilet paper. Folks lost their dang minds over that 2-ply and, God-willing, 3-ply good. Elbows were thrown, curses were cast, friendships ended over the angely-soft paper product which was not widely utilized by woman and mankind until the year of our Lord 1857. Joseph Gayetty marketed “Medicated paper for the water closet” that year, and our ability to think outside the roll has drastically declined ever since.
As the TP wars raged, I remember gazing out the window in late winter and shrugging, “Them leaves will be out soon – they’ll work in a pinch.” Thus, the Martin household did not fall victim to the hysteria of the toilet paper. As, I’m sure, your families did not, either. Now, eight months on, I gaze out the window as those same bathroom-McGuyvers gently cascade in the wind, peacefully falling to the ground in all their red and yellow and brown glory, and I can’t help but reflect on all the stuff we’ve been through this year. All the pain, all the hurt, all the losses, all the fear, all the division, all the grief and sorrows, all the joy, all the rest, all the ingenuity of connection, all the tenacity of spirit, all the well-wishes, all the miracle of scientific discovery, all the hope for a new season of health and togetherness. All the dark and all the light.
And then my eyes fall upon one of my favorite species of tree – the American Beech. It has smooth gray bark, perfecting for engraving lovers’ initials, and its stems are marked with distinctive oval, serrated, veiny leaves whose texture is second to none. It is a sturdy, long-lived, shade-and-infertile-site-tolerant tree with entire groves of beeches sprouting and growing from the roots of a single tree. Before the Passenger Pigeon was hunted to extinction their flocks were so densely populated they literally blackened the sky as they passed over. These tragic Columbides highly preferred Beech nuts and sought shelter in the branches of this magnificent tree which makes this species even more dear to me. While the beech is distinctive in both its appearance and its history, it’s also unusual in that it is one of the few trees which holds onto its leaves deep into winter.
You see, Evergreen trees were the first trees to exist on our planet. And, for a long time, evergreen was the only way to be. Over the eons, though, a spectrum of ways for trees to exist in the world evolved with deciduous trees making their appearance at the opposite end of the spectrum. Evergreens are adapted to year-round photosynthesis while deciduousness allows for adaptation to increasing photosynthetic efficiency during favorable seasons and reducing frost damage and water loss during unfavorable seasons. In the middle lie beech trees whose leaves, like the deciduous, die in the fall but, like the evergreens, retain these leaves deep into winter. This retention of dead matter is called marcescence.
A number of theories exist to explain this take on defoliation – retention of leaves until closer to spring may allow for natural compost to fall and begin to rot at the onset of a new growing season, the dead leaves may provide some frost- and depredation-protection for buds, and/or the retained leaves may funnel more snowfall towards the base of the tree, providing more moisture for growth. Perhaps these potential competitive advantages are what drive this process of marcescence. Or, perhaps, the existence of evergreen species within the same family as the Beech tree indicates that one of my favored species is still on its evolutionary path of becoming.
The jury is still out on the hows and whys of marcescence, but I continue to enjoy gazing out the window mid-winter to see the sturdy beech holding onto its dead, brown leaves despite the rustling wind and the piercing cold. I hope you’re able to find a favorite tree and marvel at its annual pilgrimage, finding some comfort and joy in the witnessing: “Have you ever heard a tree be anything but quiet? It may rustle or creak in conversation with the wind but it would never think to name all the creatures it gives refuge to or boast about the shade it casts on hot days. It silently reaches out into the world to do its part and its actions are its declaration.”
– Lori Hetteen
Creator. Please help us find and hold onto faith that our path extends beyond our imagination, that the sorrows and despair of today will be memories in our tomorrows. Help us to honor our grief but not clench so tightly to it that we do not have an open hand free to receive the gifts of joy and love. Help us to wonder about the world around us. And, as we gather around our trees this year, help us to find the thrill of hope, help our weary selves rejoice in your love. Amen.