What do trees and grizzly bears have in common?
According to forester Peter Wohlleben, who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, bears prepare for hibernation by eating and eating to grow fat and sustain themselves for months of sleep with no food. And would you believe it, deciduous trees do the same?
Where does the food come from to sustain the sleep of trees over winter? It comes from their own bodies.
The leaves of trees are mini protein-makers, busy all through the green season making protein and sugars to feed the underground growth of roots, and the above-ground growth of trunk and branches, flowers, fruit, and seeds.
Shutting off those mini-factories
Before going to sleep for the winter, trees need first to stop working. And so deciduous trees shut off protein-making and release their no-longer-wanted leaves to the ground. Now they are ready, not exactly to grow fat, but a tree-ish equivalent, as they draw down those nutrients from their leaves in order to store them under their skin.
Have you ever held a winter tree? Try for yourself. When I hold my trees in winter I sense into a solid, grounded feeling in the trunk. The trees are fat and full. The feeling is quite different from holding a spring tree, with its surging sap, or a summer tree with its leafy abundance.
So yes, trees sleep, peacefully.
It’s a little different for evergreen trees
In Aotearoa New Zealand, where even in the South Island the climate is temperate, native trees are mostly evergreen with only about 22 species being fully or partially deciduous. But that is another story.
For now, I want to focus on deciduous trees which are numerous in Aotearoa and mostly found in the northern hemisphere of the lands of my ancestors. These are the trees that sleep.
Trees that sleep have something to teach us all.
What can sleeping trees teach you?
In winter, are you able to withdraw from being highly productive — or at least from expecting to be as productive as you might be in spring, for example? Can you resist big initiatives, knowing that this is not the best time for enterprise?
Can you accept the slowing of energy, along with the slowing of your metabolism, in winter?
Can you feel a sense of kinship with the sleeping trees?
Resting and conserving energy is the task of this season. For many, this is a welcome change and something of a relief.
Drawing back creates perspective and allows planning to take place.
How might you sustain yourself in winter?
Here are some tips:
1. Take a winter retreat, or restful holiday. I’ve done this over past years by booking myself into a retreat centre to be cared for as I tuck up with my books and coloured pencils. This year I’ve been retreating at home by reducing my workload, and sorting and organising my office and papers ready for a creative surge to come.
2. Seek soul food. For some, this will be through reading, rest, or restorative yoga. For others, it will be concerts, comedy, and choirs. For others, movies, making/mending, and mirth.
For me, it’s also been quietly working on a small project while the rain rattles the windows and thunder rumbles overhead. I have the time to take things slowly and allow for creative gestation. The project will be launched in spring, but for now, it needs a lot of thought that can’t be rushed. Winter is my slow cooking creative season, a time to descend into the deep well and retrieve treasure.
I can take a walk to find a word.
Take a stretch break to hone a phrase.
Take time out to contemplate a choice about structure.
Quietly search through my boxes to find archival material.
Repeat my own Winter Attunement home ritual for deep nourishment.
3. Make something. Find a project for your hands, to take you off-screen and into connection with your body. Some like to knit, sew quilts, or attend to mending, in the age-old tribal tradition of tending and preparing. My ancestors would mend tools and fishing nets in winter, weave on looms and carve wood.
One person I know is keeping a visual diary, and another has started a written journal. If you have the impulse to create something, winter’s slowness will support you.
Be well, be at peace, be patient.
The rush of spring will soon lift you up into busy intentions and new challenges. Enjoy the gifts of winter while you can, and lean into a sleeping tree.
Winter has a concentrated and nutty kernel, if you know how to find it.
—Henry David Thoreau
Winter Attunement: This home ritual will bring you nourishment and sustenance as you come into the birthing of a new seasonal year. Click here to find out more.