Winter is certainly here now in western Pennsylvania, though the season took a long time making up its mind this year. We ice fishermen are still waiting (most of us, at least). The woods has taken on the stillness and quiet that accompanies shorter days and long and frigid nights.
The forest takes a deep breath now, like a vast singular hibernating creature, it sleeps and renews, its heartbeat too slow to be detected. Xylem and phloem still secretly transport water and nutrients through woody trunks and branches though, ensuring all is ready for the coming profusion of leaves. Wind shakes barren branches and also invisibly, brings trace nutrients carried in the clouds – some salt from the Pacific Ocean and some wayward bacteria. Another minor element, carbon dioxide, arrives on the breeze to keep the plants alive that still photosynthesize along springs, even now. The forest’s circulatory system – the water cycle – carries on and it’s capillary trees take a deep breath.
We humans might rather hibernate through this season but many of us are out and about as well, savoring the solitude of winter hills and trails. The stark vignettes of skeletal trees make things simple for now – complexity’s been left behind in peopled places.
Maybe better that our minds too have this break, even as our bodies labor to keep a pace, leap the logs, follow the trace. We’d be overwhelmed if we knew half of what’s taking place inside of the trees, both dead and alive. There’s the trees’ own biological systems – always alive. There’s a realm of microbes. There’s an owl watching our progress from that hole where a branch fell away a decade earlier. And there’s the ever-present mycellia, the fungi, or simply mushrooms, still working in symbiosis with tree roots, still creating some nutrients, channeling others – a vast kingdom and network we remain insensible to as we walk the winter wood. We want to see a deer, elk or photogenic otter. We often fail to appreciate the support structure, the living organs, the unified organism of the woodlands as we hurry through, eluding the cold.
Don’t forget to stop and sit on a log this winter, to think about it all and find the signs of life.