Everything is still. The forest floor is matted down with layers of leaves and all but a few trees with trembling leaves stand silently, a monument to their summer selves. Pale blue sky and hints of sun pierce through the web of limbs and branches steadfastly waiting for the return of the light and promise of new life.
Even the birds and wildlife are quiet. The occasional rustle among thick brambles signals the presence of a squirrel foraging for snacks. Canadian geese call out to each other as they sail overhead to a nearby lake.
Although this forest in central New Jersey seems still and almost frozen as it stands witness to the season’s longest night, it is quietly active, dreaming of a renewal of life and another chapter in its history.
According to New Jersey Conservation Foundation staff biologist Dr. Emilie DeVito,
underneath all the decaying leaves and mottled floor in shades of brown, the forest is alive with quiet work.
As falling leaves pile on the forest floor, water, molds and other fungi work together to decompose the material. On warmer days, invertebrates living in the soil begin shredding and chopping up the softened leaves. By early spring, this matter will serve as nutrient-rich food for root and fungal mats in the humus – the rich soil layer beneath the leaf litter.
Just as we cozy up to a fire with a warm cup of cocoa and dream of the return of warmer, longer days, so does the forest. Slowly the light will stream through the branches a little bit longer each day, warming the forest floor and giving rise to green sprouts throughout spring. Ephemeral flowers will begin to rise and signal the new cycle of verdant growth from the ground up.
Pausing to experience the silence of the forest during the winter months is a gift of presence.
While the other seasons offer spectacular feasts for the senses – the scents of new life in spring and the explosion of activity in summer, from warm breezes to the chorus of cicadas and dancing canopy of leaves, to the vibrant colors and transitional movement of fall – winter is a gift of silence and stillness.
It is in that stillness that we can choose to dream of warmer days and hope for the return of the light, or to just embrace what is, the quiet and peace that surrounds us in the woods. Perhaps we will find that deep within in the forest is a different kind of warmth, a deep, intuitive understanding that despite the stark appearance of things, life is in the process of renewal all around us.
What the forest knows and can teach each of us as we walk and pause quietly among the still trees, is that the light always returns.
Life is a series of cycles and the night is always darkest before the dawn.