Marcescent – adj. (of a leaf or frond) withering but remaining attached to the stem.
On winter walks you might encounter a tree clinging to lifeless adornments. This phenomenon – known as marcescence – describes the way in which some varieties of deciduous trees (often oaks and beeches) cling to browned, withered leaves through the winter.
This clinging to that which is lifeless has some benefits for the tree. Number one being it provides a nibble-worthy distraction for wildlife as an attempt to protect other, living, parts of the tree. Also, by retaining foliage during winter months, the tree is potentially able to trap snow, providing more water for spring growth when snow begins to melt.
However, this clinging to that which is lifeless has consequences as well. Keeping the excess foliage makes the tree susceptible to excess insect infestation. Maintaining these leaves also places greater taxation on its limited winter-water resources. Additionally, by having an abundance of leaves on branches in a snowy season, the tree is more likely to suffer limb breakage from snow weight, and associated wind damage.
Lately, marcescent trees have been grabbing my attention adamantly. In my current windy climes, their bronzed leaves chime in declaration of something God wishes me to hear. I think I have avoided unpacking what’s there in rattling of marcescence due to the anxiety of conviction that leads to a direct download of ‘uncomfortable clarity’.
When I look at these trees I think ‘why are you keeping on all that dead weight?’ And that utterance immediately rebounds back on myself. I find that I see myself mirrored in the marcescence of these winter trees. I find that reflection painful to perceive.
I don’t know about you, but I hold fast to various sorts of lifeless adornments, keeping them affixed to my internal frame. These most often take the form of particular thought patterns. These cognition routines have seemly always been part of my internal life – so routinely there that I often don’t notice them. So familiar, in fact, that I am not sure I know myself without them.
Every once in a while, when some of my other thoughts pass through their season, and drop away to my soul’s forest floor, I see those dead-weight adornments in glaring clarity. I have avoided pruning these browned, withered things and grown used to their company. There is an identifiable part of myself that instantly decides to shake them off, pluck and discard them, grind them to a pulp underfoot. Simple as that. And Yet. Yet. There is another part of myself that is, inexplicably, but disturbingly, fond of these lifeless things, or at least fearful of removing them, and this part of myself demonstratively hunts around for easy justification as to why it is ‘ok’ for them to stay.
Why is that? What is this internal conflict? I ask this of the tree as well. I want the tree to explain it to me, so I can understand myself. But the tree seems as conflicted and confused as I am. It is equally trapped in its self-created obstacles, and remains mute on the point. The marcescence in it has brought me to an undesired awareness of the marcescence in me. ‘Undesired’ because this awareness is painful, harrowing, and hallowing.
Meeting with marcescence has propelled me to more intentionally ask God about internal conflict. I’ve skirted on the edge of this many times, but haven’t jumped bravely into the deep end of inquiry, because I’m fearful of what God might bring about should I ask. But I am getting there … and I find Romans 7 relates:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7: 15, 21 – 25
This tree and me both seemed bound to this ‘desire to do what is right’ but not having ‘the ability to carry it out’. I feel ‘wretched’ indeed when I contemplate that state. But, as Paul points out: praise be to God that this ability to overcome the struggle stop doing ‘what I hate’ is not the requirement for eternal life. Thank the Lord (in the most non-cliché way possible) that salvation is not based on a performance record.
While cringing in despair at my marcescent reflection, God whispered through the tree’s chiming leaves that there is a message of hope to be heard as well.
First, dendrologically (perhaps not a word, but I’m going with it) speaking, marcescence is typically a feature of juvenile trees. The trees, as they mature, grow out of this tendency to cling to lifelessness. I’d like to think of this as the tree growing in trust, learning that it does not need the safety blanket of familiar, dead-weight things. Even I, with my eternal struggle to see improvement in myself, can look back at the tree that was me a few years back and see clearly that at least one layer of lifeless leaves is less dense in my mind’s canopy. If you are honest, I bet you can see this too, in the tree that is you.
Second, returning to the latter part of the dictionary definition of marcescence – ‘but remaining attached to the stem’ – I think this is an utterance of comfort to any of us who have marcescent tendencies. In this metaphor, I now see myself as the withered, life-drained leaf. I’ve been desiccated by a bout of treacherous thoughts, and I’m left feeling fragile, limp, and on the edge of emotional disintegration. The instruction in such cases is this – ‘remain attached to the stem’:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last …
John 15: 5; 8 – 16
Even when we feel drained of life past the point of redemption, by remaining attached to the stem, by returning to the Word and to the commandments (even half-heartedly or robotically) and to the commandment above all others – to Love one another – we will (in time) begin to bear fruit. This is the life God calls us to and has designed us for – a life in which we are His friends (really chew on that concept) and filled with His joy. In marcescent states of mind, it is hard to find this believable. But choose to believe the unbelievable.
So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
There seems to be another instructive here too: instead of directly attacking the circular, withering habits you are desperate not to do, but keep doing, focus, instead, on how to love those around you. Sometimes this helps as a backdoor mechanism, providing healing of the self without our noticing. By accepting this temporary wilted status of spirit, but attempting to distract your mind by finding a way to bless someone else’s day, you might find chlorophyll slowly seeping back into your leaf margins. It might be imperceptible, but in time the greenness of joy can return, and your rootedness to the branch becomes all the more fixed. The timeline for this is unknown, and will contain pain along the way. But it is not a forever state.
Before I leap onto another tree metaphor, I guess what I am trying to say to myself (and to anyone else who might need to hear this) is: keep your eye out for marcescence. Listen to the chiming tune of the withered leaves, and when you spot their bronze, rattling dance stop for a second and risk a prayer to ask God how much marcescence you have going on in your heart in that moment there.
And also remember this. In time, all marcescent leaves leave the tree. Sometimes dropping off slowly one by one, sometimes blown off entirely in a sudden gale. But, in the proper season, each tree returns to spring-green, become a new creation:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
2 Corinthians 5:17