Rites of Passage

Photograph by Yoshihiro Makino / Trunk Archive


words by Willow Defebaugh

Every autumn, trees show us how beautiful it can be to shed our leaves—and that what we let go of can never really be lost.

At last, autumn has made its presence known here in the Northern Hemisphere. I’ve spent the past week watching all the trees turn to shades of amber, ochre, and scarlet, all of which have had me reflecting on the passage of time. I love the familiarity that comes with growing older—the recognition of cycles and the wisdom of the seasons. With age, we learn to greet autumn with the air of an old friend that says, “Ah yes, I remember. Now is the time for hallowed harvests and loosening all my leaves, letting myself both rejoice and mourn their passage into earth.”


My favorite thing about this season is the boldness of its arrival and how impossible it is to ignore. Some seasons slip into the next unnoticed, but not autumn. With every color, it tells us what time of year it is as if every tree is trying to remind us that the time to harvest is here. For that reason, autumn is traditionally a time of celebration. The crisp temperatures signal the end of the growing season; crops planted in the spring are now ready to be culled. We, too, can use this period to reflect on what it is we cultivated this year, and to take stock of how we grew.


What we harvest now will keep us fed during the months of cold ahead. We can ask ourselves such questions as: Where can I create the conditions for rest? What must I gather before settling in for winter? Maybe that’s why there’s an element of fear inherent to fall: it awakens in us a primordial awareness that winter looms, a coming dearth of nourishment and stretching of the dark. Or perhaps it’s the presence of dying things, a reminder of our mortality. I think, on a deeper level, it’s the arrival of our closest ally and most bitter enemy: change.


Not long ago, I wrote about abscission—the process by which deciduous trees lose their leaves. When the cold air comes, their leaves stop producing verdant chlorophyll, causing them to change colors and eventually wither and fall. They do this so that they can conserve energy during the winter, as well as set themselves up for successful pollination in the spring. In this sense, the release we see all around us in the autumn is an act of survival. And in every vibrant hue is a reminder of the lesson at the heart of this season: how beautiful it can be to let go.


For all we talk about the changing leaves, little emphasis is often placed on what happens after they fall. Outside of cities, they serve an important purpose: they turn into compost, quickly decomposing and adding valuable nutrients to the organic compounds in the soil from which the trees grow. There’s an old proverb that we can only lose what we cling to. It would seem our arboreal neighbors have always known this: that what we let go of can never really be lost. 


Countless volumes of philosophy and religious texts have been written about our kind’s inability to release our attachments. How much more suffering do we create for ourselves in attempting to hold on, even when everything around us is telling us it’s time to let go? Were a deciduous tree to try and maintain its leaves, it might not survive what was to come. How many climate disasters and how many pandemics will it take for humanity to accept that it’s time to change? The seasons will pass regardless; the question, as always, is whether we will adapt with them.


I recently heard someone say that things don’t get better, they just keep changing. We all have seasons of growth and decay. I’m learning to no longer fear the latter. I pray that my old leaves might leave me, that I can grip them less tightly and marvel at their transient tones as I give them to the ground. For the first time this autumn, I’ve witnessed the trees around me in the throes of transformation—their small, vivid deaths—and wondered if they might just be healing. What else do you call it, when we release the past in order to create a healthy future for ourselves?

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