The first hint of autumn comes when my coworkers start buying pumpkin-spice lattes.
Usually that same week, I have to start dodging falling acorns on my strolls under urban oaks to avoid a concussion.
Then one morning, a brisk wind exhales through wide-open windows and fills my room.
It takes me by surprise; in this moment, the awareness of transition finally takes root.
Change is in the air.
It’s no wonder that we think of autumn as the time for new beginnings. We experience or remember the start of the school year; we lock in with a lover for cuffing season; we change our wardrobe to boots and sweaters; we celebrate the harvest with religious and national holidays.
How do we prepare for all these fresh starts without losing our marbles?
How do we actually savor the experience of change?
This year, seeking wisdom and guidance, I decided to look up to the experts of resilience and patience: trees. Specifically, deciduous trees.
Deciduous trees are characterized by annual shedding of all their leaves. They often are the ones we see turning to bright, fiery colors. New England’s beloved deciduous trees include the mighty maples, birches, oaks, and ashes.
By observing how deciduous trees morph into their winter bodies, we can learn the art of letting go and slowing down.
I’ve compiled a list of eight sappy but meaningful lessons we can enjoy from deciduous wisdom.
If you don’t like lists, you’re barking up the wrong tree:
1. Break down your chlorophyll and reveal your quiet colors.
Ironically, summer is deemed the season for vacations. But there’s no denying that summer forces us into high-energy expenditure. The kids are out of school and we’re running around committing to travels and social events and long days outside.
We go to bed later and rise earlier, with the sun.
The momentum of summer catches us off guard in August when we realize there are only a few warm weeks left and we haven’t even gone to the beach once yet. By the time September rolls around, we’re scrambling to prepare for the organized cool down.
With the changing pace, all the adventures and expectations of summer no longer distract us. We realize that we haven’t processed the collectively fast-paced events of the last five months.
It’s time to go inward again and see what we find.
The leaves of trees have a similar conundrum. In the spring and summer months, leaves become busy food factories. A chemical called chlorophyll absorbs the sun’s energy, converting it to sugar for the tree, and it operates tirelessly.
Chlorophyll is responsible for the lush green color we enjoy all summer.
But once the hours of sunlight start to dwindle around the autumnal equinox, all this hustle and bustle must come to a rest. The chlorophyll is no longer useful and starts to break down. As do many of our plans and energy levels.
That’s when the carotenoids and xanthophylls have their moment in the limelight. They are the pigments responsible for the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn.
All spring and summer, they are working hard.
But, they are overshadowed by the abundance of green, by the constant activity in each leaf’s chlorophylls.
Similarly, we start to reveal even to ourselves some of our underlying patterns overshadowed by our buzzing summer selves. Not only is this moment important for us as individuals, but it’s also quite revealing for our witnesses, loved ones, and communities.
Notice your quiet colors, and the quiet colors of those around you. How do you feel when your chlorophyll breaks down?
2. Shed your leaves and trust the process.
Autumn is the time to lay ourselves bare and strip down to the essentials.
Imagine a thick, New England snowfall on a tree full of clinging broad leaves. With snow caked onto their bodies and ice congealing across their large surface areas, the branches become heavy and just cannot support the weight.
If the tree doesn’t shed on time, its branches may snap under the pressure, and it could weaken the tree; it could even take decades for the tree to heal from that wound!
Lots of people talk about “letting go of what doesn’t serve us,” but I would argue that the deciduous trees teach us “letting go” in a different framework. They teach us that letting go is part of the cycle, and that timing is everything.
It’s not only that the leaves no longer serve the tree. It’s that the tree knows it will not be able to serve the leaves too. The leaves won’t be able to get the sunlight or moisture they need to be their green, summer selves.
Deciduous leaves are not meant to survive a bitter cold and will suffer as a result. For us, this means we have to think beyond what our “leaves” (relationships, commitments, projects, ambitions) can do for us, but we also have to consider the capacity to let them thrive too. This is an important time to re-evaluate what we want to take with us in the winter.
By “letting go,” we can commit wholeheartedly to what we can truly sustain.
3. We don’t have to shed all at once.
On the subject of letting go, which can be an overwhelming notion, remember that deciduous trees shed incrementally. The detachments happen over the course of several months, not all in one minute.
We can approach the process of change leaf by leaf.
4. No two leaves take the same course.
Speaking of leaves, we think of them as clusters of mass on a tree or part of a colorful, autumnal landscape.
But if we look closely, no two leaves have exactly the same pattern of pigmentation.
No two leaves fall in the same exact moment, thanks to the various nudges of wind.
Each leaf ends up in a different place.
This attention to detail teaches us that change looks different from person to person. We each bear original journeys, even when we share a branch all summer.
From afar, a collective shift happens in autumn in the northern hemisphere. What do you notice in your process of falling? What adjustments do you notice in the energy of your loved ones?
5. Celebrate the fruits of your labor!
As we dial back into autumn, we look back on what we actually spent our energy creating over the past spring and summer. Sometimes, we get so busy during those chlorophyll-hyped months that we forget to appreciate the growth we’ve experienced both in ourselves and in others.
We have to acknowledge the mighty oaks for knowing how to foster the fruits of their labor.
As we acknowledged earlier, falling acorns can be killer for windshields, eyeglasses, and skulls. But, they are so much more than dangerously cute clusters.
During the spring and summer, oaks spend a lot of energy nourishing acorns. They start off as flowers and then transition into hearty seeds. They ripen in autumn and fall to the ground in heaps.
Squirrels grab most of these acorns and store them as valuable plunder for their winter meals. The few that escape the squirrel’s hungry grip start their winter lives as new trees waiting for the right time and place to take root.
Some things we worked hard for over the past year become essential gifts and opportunities for others around us.
Some things we must keep watch over, and let them root down for growth.
Notice the hard-earned acorns among your friends, family, and community. Maybe you can be like a squirrel and store some of their abundant fruits to nourish you in the winter.
With thousands of acorns scattered across the ground, it becomes impossible to tell which one belongs to which tree. Autumn calls on us to combine our fruits and share the wealth.
6. Feel the breeze on your naked branches.
Not literally, of course, unless you want frostbite.
What I mean is, feel the wind comb through the naked branches of your ego.
In the summer, we are heavy with production and responsibility to get a lot done at once. The wind tussles our leaves and flowers. It’s much easier to feel a sense of purpose when we are in go-go-go mode.
As autumn comes, we shed and start to feel the wind in our raw places. In other words, we start to revisit and redefine what we truly find meaningful in our lives.
Pay attention to how sound travels through the morphing spaces of your life once the leaves are gone.
Does your voice sound different in the morning? Do the birds chirp in new rhythms outside? Does the air smell different?
Shedding our greenery allows us to feel less vulnerable to the changing winds, but feel them intensely.
7. Slow down and grow from your roots.
On the surface, we look pretty different from trees in the way we’re attached to the earth.
Trees can’t migrate to Florida and take a beach vacation when the air at home gets too snippy. Neither can they generate their own heat from muscles and fur like our kind.
But if we’re in the temperate northern hemisphere, and we’re not flying to a warm place for the next six months, we know there’s no escape. It’s time to hunker down.
Why is this the time for us to focus on our roots, exploring our inner needs, desires, and expectations?
When we look at a deciduous tree preparing for winter, we see the upper body of the tree sleeping naked in the brutal cold. Deep down in the mysterious obscurity of dirt, the roots slowly continue to spindle out their feelers.
In fact, this period of slow growth for the roots is completely essential for the health and lifespan of deciduous trees. Autumn and winter seasons allow them to expand their deep networks to find new sources of nutrients and water come spring without distraction.
In human terms: the changing of the season is not the time for tireless productivity nor people-pleasing. This is the time for building resilience. This is the time to expand the foundation of your deepest self.
How will you expand your spindly roots? To what new openings will they guide you?
8. Remember, it’s all a cycle.
Ultimately, the leaves that fall turn into humus.
They become material for the tree and its fungal partners to gobble up nutrients in the spring. Letting go isn’t synonymous with “throwing away.” Letting go is all about transformation and re-purposing.
What we let go of is the very material that helps us grow next year. What we make space for now, we can fill with abundance in the spring.
And the best part is, new leaves will grow on us again and the cycle will go on!
Please note: I live in New England, so obviously this little list may feel most relevant for those of us who experience temperate autumns.
Also note: I don’t mean to insinuate that we shouldn’t be active in the autumn and winter! This is the time when a lot of us start school, or solidify a partnership, or have to interact with complicated family dynamics on Thanksgiving.
To that point, I just want to encourage us (and myself as well) to be intentional about where and how we use our energy in this time, for it is limited and the days are short. Spending them with the ones we truly love, including with our true selves, is a perfect way to recharge.