Sleeping trees and spring buds

Spring is here. In our little Rocky Mountain ski town, that means muddy trails, gray skies, spring snowstorms and (maybe) a few patches of green grass. Every year at this time, I become more attuned to every little sign of spring: the returning Robin, the bear scat left in a neighbor's yard, the soft buds on the aspen and willow trees around our house. 

This year, those tree buds caught my attention, and in an effort to learn more about how buds work, I headed to Google. And I was surprised. I learned that those tree buds didn't just show up when the calendar passed March 20. Rather, they've likely been around since the fall, when trees have their last big hurrah of growth and prepare for winter.

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It was a good reminder that sometimes I only notice what I'm looking for. And it set me off on another path of questions: how do trees actually survive through the winter?

Trees can live in pretty cold climates. Sub-zero temperatures, feet of snow, blizzard conditions. Why in the world don't trees freeze? They have liquid in them after all. And if they do freeze, why haven't I noticed it?

It turns out trees actually enter into a dormant period over winter. It's like hibernating, or going into a very deep sleep. Before winter, they make a growth regulator called abscisic acid (ABA) that halts their growth. Some trees dehydrate their cells, pushing water out of the cell and into the spaces between: there, it can freeze without damaging the cell. Other trees beef up the number of minerals, hormones and other solutes in their cells, lowering the freezing point to prevent freezing. That still isn't always enough, as evidenced by trees that crack or "explode" in frigid temperatures. But those efforts get most trees through the long, cold winter months.

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Now back to the tree buds. As you've probably noticed, they come in a range of shapes and sizes: some are pointed and others are clustered, some have scales while others are smooth. Cut one open, and you'll tiny leaves, ready to grow as soon as days lengthen and temperatures warm. 

I love that, how a bud contains everything needed for broad, green leaves, just waiting for conditions to be right. And it reminds me of how writing sometimes feels. Like something is there under the surface, not quite ready to appear. Creativity, like creation, is cyclical. Periods of intense growth and productivity are followed by periods of... nothing.

In writing, I love the first draft part the most, when thousands of words are hammered out and cloudy ideas slowly take shape. Revision is harder for me (though sticker charts help). But the hardest is when I have no writing to do. My creativity seems spent and no new ideas are prodding at my mind or my heart. Books are out to editors, waiting for revisions to return. And I muddle through the days, thankful for my part-time jobs, wondering whether I'll ever write another creative word again.

That's when I need to remember that there's a rhythm to creativity and creation. There are seasons - winters followed by springs, ups followed by downs. It helps to know that even trees rest through winter. And that maybe those dismally unproductive periods are actually necessary to prepare for the next spurt of growth. After all, the buds of the next project are likely there, just waiting for spring.

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Images from Pixaby/Creative Commons