Winter Ghosts on the Trail

Beech tree in January

Beech tree in January

Wisps of last year linger even at the end of January. Almost all leaves dropped off  their branches months ago but the beech tree clings to last season. Even as it stands in a carpet of snow, its leaves rustle in a wind, one of the few sounds in the forest now. Though the leaves have lost their green color and are now only a ghost of their former selves, they summon up the images of the new leaves that will replace them and the millions of leaves that will appear on the trees that now stand bare in the dry winter air.

Needle bearing trees, pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks are covered in green year around, though even they lose needles from time to time. But they do not lose them all at once. And maples and birch trees lose their leaves in a continuous rain of colorful but dead and dying leaves in late autumn. Yet some beech trees hold on to their leaves throughout the winter in a process botanists call ‘marcescence’, a trait shared with oak trees. The tan wispy leaves that last throughout the winter  no longer participate in photosynthesis. Yet some scientists have postulated that these marcescent leaves serve to protect the new yet-to-bud leaves. And some have suggested that oaks and beeches are an intermediate type of tree on the evolutionary spectrum; occupying a space between the coniferous trees and the maples and birches. (Losing leaves in the fall can be a help to trees by limiting water loss and limit damage from severe cold, while holding on to needles year round may maximize photosynthesis).

Running through the snow-covered trails at Flat Rock Brook park in New Jersey, the leaves on the beech tree seemed incongruous viewed against a snow-filled backdrop. A leaf, after all, represents growth and fertility and hope and springtime. Yet the snow cover bespeaks a winter dormancy, a time of inactivity for forests and gardens. But seeing the ground covered with snow does not mean we cannot see what it hides.

My route took me over a brook crossing, one I had done many times before, rock hopping my way across. I knew the rocks were there but they were under a pile of snow and some hidden in thin ice. I looked down, but saw only mounds of snow and despite the snow cover, intuited my path.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Yet staring at the translucent leaves both on the trees and the ones that finally succumbed to their fate, I saw re-birth. Springtime. Looking at the snow covered trail and the snow on the ground to my right and left I saw, or at least wanted to see, spring wildflowers and grasses, buds on trees and nesting birds. I did see those things I think.

What can we see when we can’t see the real thing?

Educators, psychologists and others have written about the effects of watching television on developing minds.  What happens when everything is revealed? Do we dull our imagination? The advertising industry has certainly settled on ‘selling the sizzle and not the steak’. Leave something to the imagination.

And many researchers have written about our ability to imagine and fill in the visual gaps when we read. I did not find a study comparing our brain function while watching versus our brain activity when reading. But in ‘Your Brain on Fiction‘, a 2012 article in the New York Times, writer Anne Murphy Paul cites findings of neuroscientists who used MRIs to evaluate brain activity in people while they were  reading.The research shows that the written word on the page stimulates even non verbal areas of our brain. A word like “cinnamon” stimulates the olfactory portion of our brains. Fiction, it turns out, is good for our brains.

And last Sunday, running through the snow seeing ghost leaves dangling on the tree and no Joe Pye weed where it is supposed to grow, I would add: experiencing the naked forest in winter has the power to stimulate the springtime portion of our brains even while we enjoy the winter landscape.

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