Mindful Engagement Through The Seasons: Evergreens
Learning through the Lens of Evergreens
Moving towards the end of the calendar year, the lush green landscape of summer fades into our memories as our days become shorter and the darkness of winter nights evelope us. As the temperature drops, sandals and sun hats are packed away to make room for boots, mittens, and snow shovels. And with the darkening days, it might begin to feel as if things are closing in as we contract with shivers and tight layers of woolen clothes, applying a thin layer of disquiet as we anticipate the winter to come.
Yet what’s fascinating to observe this time of year is the contrast we see in our communities. Throughout the cold, darkening weeks of December, we gather together to celebrate, creating opportunities to share our cultural heritage through community and family traditions. Public spaces are filled with colorful lights and festive gatherings, and private spaces brim with human connection and attitudes of giving. We make room for what is rather than dwelling in beach memories or anxious anticipation for winter storms. From these experiences within current moments, we emerge with a shared history and a broader sense of place. This sharing is layered upon the stages of our lives, resulting in a “harvest of community” year after year as we move through the cyclical pattern of life towards the longest night on the calendar.
Another harvest, our final agricultural yield of the year, is from our tree farms. New England grown conifer trees become a focal point on town commons, in community spaces, and for some, within our own homes. They are also the focal point of our landscape. Like deciduous trees in early autumn, and fields and meadows in late fall, we can read our landscape by paying attention to the color and texture of native evergreen trees.
This holiday season, let us explore how the harvest and display of coniferous trees unite our communities and how their evergreen presence in our landscape supports interests and values through local resources, annual events, and self-initiated opportunities.
LOCAL RESOURCES: NATIVE SPECIES & TREE FARMS
Do you know how many different native species of coniferous trees grow in your region? Do they only grow in northern regions, or are there species that grow in tropical areas? Let these questions be your catalyst for learning by becoming curious and searching for answers. One step towards finding answers might be to scout for different tree species in local forests and parks. Elect to go on a self-directed or guided tree id hike, bringing along a sketchbook, camera, and a field guide checked out from the library (or this app). Look for the different textures and patterns of evergreen needles and bark. Identify various sizes and shapes of cones and consider if they provide food for wildlife. Gather examples and create a nature table that consists of a sampling of needles, cones, and bark, along with sketches from your outdoor hikes. Add specimens to your table throughout the winter as new-to-you species are discovered.
If you live in a more urban region with a mostly landscaped environment, you can explore ornamental conifer trees as many species are planted for their evergreen presence in winter city landscapes. Search for these trees and bushes and let them lead you towards learning about landscape architecture and placemaking in urban environments.
Whether you live in an urban or more rural area, definitely take a trip to your nearest tree farm. An examination of evergreen tree farming can teach us about a non-food related form of sustainable farming while supporting interests in environmental science and local agriculture.
Even if your family does not place a six-foot evergreen tree in the middle of your living room during December, there are other ways to engage with a tree farm alongside self-selecting and cutting your own. Engage your senses! Slowly meander through your local tree farm or Christmas tree lot and spend time with each species. Feel the texture of the needles and explore their scent. The smell of evergreen coniferous trees can stir up memories from childhood that connect us to our heritage and personal stories that are strung together like garland, decorating our memories and family history.
CBEdu Resources: Native Species, Libraries, Forests, Trails, Tree Farms, Urban Landscapes, Christmas Tree Lots
Interests/Values: Plant Biology, Ecology, Nature-Based Engagement, Landscape Architecture, Placemaking, Agriculture, Dendrology
ANNUAL EVENTS: COMMUNITY TREE LIGHTING CEREMONIES
From the capital city of Massachusetts to the capital of the United States, community tree-lighting ceremonies take place across the country as we enter the twelfth month of the year. The center of attention is often times a gorgeous evergreen tree, but sometimes, as is the case for Amherst, MA, it may be a deciduous tree that grows in the center of the town common. Annual tree lighting traditions can take place in town commons and squares, libraries, state parks, and often include Santa’s arrival by fire engine, school marching bands, horse-drawn wagon rides, and a whole lot of caroling!
These traditions do more than provide economic development to a downtown region, they bring people together for an annual celebration of community. Engaging in yearly tree lighting ceremonies at various stages of life layer memories that build upon one another and deepen a connection with those with whom we share our city streets and country roads. Intergenerational relationships are supported through song, and the presence of glowing trees in our town spaces support placemaking with ongoing events throughout the holiday season.
Here are a few tree lighting ceremony and celebration examples happening in Western MA this year (2018):
- 12/1: Decemberfest (Westfield, MA)
- 12/1: Whately Library Tree Lighting (Whately, MA)
- 12/1: Christmas Tree Lighting & Parade of Lights (Holyoke, MA)
- 12/7: Making Spirits Bright (Lenox, MA)
- 12/7: Park Square Tree Lighting Ceremony (Pittsfield, MA)
Not only do tree lighting ceremonies strengthen a sense of place, they can also be used as curiousity catalyst about history, dendrology, and technology. Asking questions and searching for answers can unveil how coniferous trees have impacted not only our natural landscape but also our heritage. Go online and learn about traditions in other regions of the country, comparing and contrasting celebrations. Discover what species of trees are lit all aglow in various towns and regions of the country. Why might these species differ? If pre-cut, how are they selected? Which is the tallest tree in which town? How many lights are strung on your local community tree and how are they applied?
CBEdu Resources: Town Commons, Parks & Recreation Departments, Libraries, Main Street, High School Students, Fire Departments
Interests/Values: History, Dendrology, Heritage, Technology, Community Development, Noncommercial, Placemaking
SELF-INITIATED OPPORTUNITIES: WREATHS
In addition to our landscape, tree farms, and town commons, conifers appear in other spaces during the holiday season too, this time in the form of evergreen wreaths and garlands!
Locally harvested branches of evergreens, like balsam and white pine, are often seen wrapped around lampposts or circled together on front doors, bank lobbies, libraries, and town halls. Where else might you see wreaths? Why wreaths? Why branches of evergreen? Are there other times of the year wreaths might appear? Getting curious, asking questions, and finding answers can guide self-directed learning towards a discovery of community traditions, symbolism and meaning, history, and arrangement methods. Notice where you see a large wreath display in your community. How did it get there? Is the wreath hanging in your town center or above the grand entrance of a learning institution an annual appearance dating back decades?
Want to learn how to make an evergreen wreath? Look for classes and workshops taking place at schools, garden clubs, and even historical museums. Lessons in history, plant botany, and methods of floral arranging are embedded in the process.
You can also use wreaths as a path towards community service during National Wreaths Across America Day organized by Wreaths Across America every year in mid-December. Their volunteer opportunities include placing wreaths on Wreaths Day and coordinating new locations.
CBEdu Resources: Native Species, Garden Clubs, Service Organizations, History Museums, Schools
Interests/Values: Floral Design, Skillsharing, Volunteering
In his book, Wandering, Hermann Hesse writes, “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
Trees have so much to teach us! And conifers, with their “evergreen” message of life even in the midst of winter, can move us closer to understanding those “ancient law(s) of life.” Their ability to create a sanctuary through annual events and family traditions play out before us, layered within our personal experiences in community and cultural heritage. If we pay attention and get curious about the impact native species have both outside and within ourselves, new discoveries and a deepening meaning of life emerge. Learning to read our evergreen landscape, engaging in annual community traditions, and taking notice of the presence of evergreens in the form of wreaths, garland, and Christmas trees are just a few pathways towards strengthening a sense of place, and ultimately, a sense of self.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot
Sienna Wildfield, Director of Community-Based Education
Sienna is the founder of Hilltown Families, Inc., serving as Executive Director from 2005-2017. See her TEDx Talk, Supporting Education Through Community Engagement to hear the story behind the vision and mission of Hilltown Families. Supporting the development of Community-Based Education Network (CBEdu Network) affiliates in other communities, Sienna is available as a national consultant and trainer to others wanting to integrate the framework of community-based education into their educational, community development, mindfulness, and sustainable community projects. Sienna lives along the bank of the Westfield River in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains where she is nurturing the emergence of the newest affiliate member of the CBEdu Network, Curly Willow on the Westfield River. [LinkedIn] firstname.lastname@example.org
[Photo credits: (c) Sienna Wildfield]