A Soft Place to Land

Most hikes, I am looking up, scanning for birds or other unidentified tiny fliers, but if the snow is deep underfoot, my eyes tend toward the ground directly ahead. I’m not as steady as I used to be and find each year brings less willingness to fall; more caution and dependence upon, not one, but two sturdy walking poles. What lies beneath could twist an ankle or cause a slip, maybe a slide, so I look down, and before I know it, am distracted by the beauty at my feet and thoughts of personal calamity fade – for little while.

I have taken an obsessive amount of photos of seeds and their pods, feathers, lichen-coated twigs, and leaves that have fallen on snow.

Many times, I begin to trudge past reminding myself I already have too many pictures of these things.

But, a few steps forward, and I stop, roll my eyes over my weakness for all things golden, brown, soft, hard, and squishy against a sparkling white backdrop. I shrug, turn back, position my camera, focus and shoot a spiny pod,

a swollen green cluster of lichen,

or the luminous leaf of Fagus grandifolia – the American beech.

Beech leaves are a winter delight. They are hangers-on. If you’ve ever walked in a cold Ohio wood and felt surrounded by a glow, or stopped to listen to the clatter when the wind picks up, you’ve likely been in the company of beech trees.

It’s called marcescence when a tree holds its leaves through the chilly seasons, and beech trees aren’t the only ones to do it, they just happen to be my favorite.

Beech leaf-keepers are usually young. In the fight for their lives, surrounded by tall and spreading behemoths, some as old as 400 years,

the little beeches know what they need and that they’ll have to be savvy to get it — light, food, and air aren’t just handed to a small tree in a big, old forest. Grandparents make for stiff competition but these whippersnappers are ready.

Like a camper, banging pots and pans to keep from being devoured by a bear, young beech clack their leaves in the wind, causing winter-hungry deer a degree of uncertainty about munching any part of them.

A young beech surrounded by its own leaves and others.

Like me, these trees know it’s wise to save a snack for later. I don’t know about you, but the only time I don’t really consider snacking is, pretty much, when I’m asleep. I break my fast after about eight hours, but a beech stands dormant for many months. Those brown and brittle leaves, don’t look like much of a treat, but come spring, when the tree needs fuel for growth, they’ll be laid to rest and all the nourishment stored inside will seep into the earth in just the right spot for the little tree’s roots to soak it up.

Speaking of soaking things up, those winter leaves also collect snow that melts and follows the path of drooping leaf to the base of the tree. Could be those stubborn adherents are the perfect watering cans.

But, not all leaves hold fast. Some lose their grip and fall, willing or not.

I have fallen a few times. Once, in younger days, when I used to run through the forest instead of hike, more focused on swimsuit season than the glorious mysteries around me, I tripped over a tree root and slid downhill. Well, I bounced face first over the rest of the tree roots in my path. When the ride ended, I crawled to the base of that very tree – I think a beech, actually – and sat with my back against it, loyal dog at my side, until I felt able to stand and limp back to my car.

As I said, my steps are ginger these days, the thought of falling, terrifying. I know a tumble now won’t just mean a day of soreness but could crack a hip or knee; could bring the end of hiking, altogether. I’ve experienced a long period of being unable to hike and admit to a fear of facing that loss again. It was a years long illness the first time. I used to lie in bed, close my eyes, and visualize familiar trails. I tried to picture them one step at a time, not wanting to forget a single landmark. As I mentally traced those paths, I remember tears making paths of their own, tracing my cheek, pooling on my pillow, marking my agony.

Hard times come for all of us. We all get sick or injured, lose jobs, lose those we love, relationships fail. We want to hang on and hold fast to our faith – to God – in those times, but often grow brittle, clacking against our circumstances, making noise, being irritable and short-fused in a twisted effort to protect ourselves from more pain. We fight to hold on to things we know were always temporal, wanting to drink in every last drop of the only life we can see, taste, and touch. I admit, that was often my response to illness. My forced confinement to the little indoors sparked frustration and anger. Everyone else was still attached, still part of a group, but my life became, of necessity, isolated. It was difficult to know what my purpose was. I did nothing, and I did it for days, weeks, months. I was cold. So cold, it hurt. My toes and fingers felt like they might snap off. And I complained. I moaned, cried, and, when I could muster the energy, pounded my pillow,

Today, I am back on the trails, and see in those bright leaves the way I wanted to be. The way I want to be.

In winter, when things are cold and quiet, when light is scarce, beech leaves can still find a soft place to land.

Alone, on a bed of snow, fallen well before their companions, they appear at rest, and just looking at them, calms me. In their brilliant, peachy phosphorescence, they light the way.

Some say life is fragile, but I don’t think so because I walk through forests and pay attention to things like leaves. No matter a leaf’s circumstance, it’s all about life, not just its own, but that of its mother tree, the ones surrounding, the ones that emerge with help from the nutrients it adds to the soil. It fell earlier than others but not before it was supposed to, not before it was necessary. Its purpose remains, which was, and is, life.

I was fallen, well before my companions, just as beech leaves can’t help but let go, submitting to sickness was not optional. It overtook me. I couldn’t see it, but even in – or especially in – that state, my purpose hadn’t changed. To glorify God and enjoy him forever, I didn’t need to be healthy. I didn’t need to hike. It really, really felt like I did, but I didn’t. I just needed to rest and teach those around me to do the same.

I needed to love the Life-giver more than anything else. I look back, and fear I didn’t light the way for my kids, didn’t teach them how to handle adversity with grace, joy, or gratitude. I fear I was only concerned with myself and not those around me, those I claim to love deeply. I know, sometimes, I was a hanger-on, hanging on to all the wrong things.

You’ve seen a leaf fall. It’s a gentle descent and a soft landing, but not an easy process. Like everything in nature, it’s about survival. Leaves are expelled, excised from the tree — pushed away. In autumn, cells grow and collect where the leaf stem meets branch forming what’s called an abscission layer. Even the name sounds harsh. But think what would happen if trees refused to let go. The water inside those leaves’ cells would expand and rupture when frozen, so no photosynthesis come spring, that would mean no food. The weight of snow and the strength of winter winds blasting against those leaves would cause branches to fracture and break away. By end of summer, many leaves are suffering insect infestations or other kinds of disease, dropping them is tree pandemic 101.

I think Christ is offering the same to me – not an easy process, and okay, maybe a rough descent, but the promise of a soft landing does wait for me, and I am meant to hold fast to this.

There is much in my life, that needs to be abscised, excised, pushed away, things that weigh me down, keep me from real and full life. Maybe beech trees wish they could cut those leaves loose. I often wish I could do that with my sin – just cut it off, cut it out, and walk away, never to be scarred by my actions, thoughts, or desires again – never to scar anyone else.

Isaiah 48:4 is God’s message to the people of ancient Israel, but this verse in particular seems apropos of little old me. “Because I know that you are obstinate and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass . . .” Stubborn, stiff-necked, and hard headed, I hang onto things that damage me, things that rob me of nourishment and growth. But, somehow, even those things, God uses for my good and his glory. Somehow, he makes beauty from ashes, and mourning, he turns to joy.

All the difficulties we endure are like those dead leaves, they seem useless but aren’t. They protect us from thinking we’re all that. When God allows that extra weight, that constant rattling for a time, we remember that we aren’t really in control. It’s so easy, in our day-to-day, to forget that. We choose and schedule our work and leisure. We plan our pregnancies, college, weddings. We’re in control, right? Nope, not even a little, and that shouldn’t be hard to grasp, but, unless you know God, and sometimes if you do, it can be hard to find comfort in it.

Isaiah 48:10 says God is using the afflictions of his people to refine them. Beech trees don’t waste the death that dangles from their branches. Those leaves protect, water, and eventually feed and allow them to mature. As we endure, we store up grace and mercy for others and learn ways to help those around us when their time of struggle comes.

A soft landing, water to keep us pliable, to expand our hearts and refresh those around us; food to keep us growing. All this, God gives so when our time to suffer, even our time to pass from this world, comes we will still be all about life. — hangers-on, clinging to the One who made us and sustains us, who uses us for His glory and the good of all. Christ never lets go. Even when I am dormant, not growing, not drawing near, he waits and pursues.

We cling to Christ to protect our hearts from doubt, pride, fear; to gain wisdom to serve and to sustain ourselves in a world full of foolishness.

We cling to Christ until we are so full of living water that it has to spill out, follow its determined path to quench the hearts around us, and return again and again to the source, so we never run out.

We cling to Christ, but, inevitably, we fall. Even in our descent, we stay close and keep looking up. We don’t lose hope because we land in a place of charity, a place of the sweetest mercy. Even in our failures and weaknesses, that bed of grace will allow us to light the way, to nourish the weary hiker who feels the next step may be too much.

We fall, succumb, and in doing this, let go our fear. We rest, drawn into the source of life.