I was walking with a dear friend in High Park right after a beautiful snowfall. Tree branches held ribbons of snow along their leafless lengths. The cedars and spruces wore the snow more thickly among their needles. The ground was so soft, muffling the sounds of traffic and voices and our footsteps. We followed a path away from the main road, curving down a slope to where the trees grew more densely together. We stood still for a moment, surrounded by tall trees, taking in the white wonder of the whole scene. My friend took out his phone and lifted his arms to take a picture when a woodpecker shot through the air out of the tree behind him and landed on his hand for a second. My friend was so shocked he jumped backward with a shout and hand spasm, and the bird flew off. We both doubled over, laughing.
When we finally got quiet again, we noticed that as we stood still, woodpeckers and nuthatches started to fill the trees around us, flitting in closer and closer from more distant branches. We both extended our arms out to our sides and stood motionless. After a few seconds of stillness, a nuthatch landed on my hand. I could feel its spindly toes holding my finger. It turned its head, pressed its weight into my hand and pushed off into flight. We stood there like this for a while in utter amazement. One after another, fifteen or so nuthatches landed on a hand, a finger, sitting for a moment and then flying away.
As much as I would love to think that we attracted the birds with our inner calm and spiritual alignment with all Life, I assume that actually, the birds were accustomed to being fed by people. This likelihood made the experience no less magnificent or wondrous. And then I had the thought – ‘trees get to experience this all the time! There is so much to learn from the lives of trees.’ If not for our toes beginning to go numb from the cold, we would have stayed there for hours, arms extended, receiving the birds.
Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the Trees, is on the evening of January 27th and the day of the 28th. Every year, this wintery celebration of trees links us to their deeply rooted gifts and teachings. Every year, the mystical intentions of the Tu B’shvat Seder with its foods (various fruits and nuts from trees) and rituals links us to currents of repair in the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual layers of our own souls and of the world around us. Every year, the practice of planting trees on Tu B’shvat echoes with the ecological imperative to act for the wellbeing of our planet. This year in particular, as the illness, deaths and isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic wear on into the winter months, Tu B’shvat gives us a special opportunity to learn from trees how to survive and thrive through this difficult winter and respond to the world we are living in.
Even as the trees look lifeless on the outside, the sap begins to rise in the trees in Israel and will rise here soon as well. Celebrating this hidden, slow and subtle movement, we mirror noticing and nurturing the essential inner fire and vitality in our own beings. The rising sap is certainly the beginning of new growth and it is hopeful and helpful to remember that it is coming, even when the sky is grey and the cold is bitter. But this year especially, I want to explore how Tu B’shvat might guide a deeper practice to search out aliveness when all looks barren, rather than focusing on waiting for the future when everything will be green and blossoming, teeming with life or when the pandemic will be over and life can return. Like my friend and I standing among the bare trees, our arms outstretched, we are invited to learn, in this season of harshness, how to make ourselves stable and inviting homes for small and wondrous flutters of aliveness.
Please join us for THREE Tu B’shvat opportunities:
January 28th – Tu B’Shvat Film and Discussion of “A Life On This Planet”
Adopt a tree at Bela Farm – At Bela Farm, Shoresh is developing a one-hundred acre centre for sustainable, land-based Judaism, just one hour west of Toronto. By adopting trees at Bela Farm, you are investing in a healthier and greener earth, while supporting the creation of a local Jewish communal space that can be visited and enjoyed by your students and their families for years to come.