Lessons from the Oak Leaves


February came bleak and quiet. Overcast, with patches of blackened snow along country roads. It seemed the world was sleeping. The aging farmer down the road hadn’t left the house in weeks – with his blaze orange stocking cap interrupting the landscape just like the male cardinal on naked blackberry bushes.

I struggle in winter. The combination of darkness and coldness pushes us inside, and grace grows thin.

I went to the woods on a Saturday, thinking of Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (101).

Going to the woods isn’t at the heart of my life’s purpose, but it is at the heart of my life’s replenishment. I go to the woods when the struggles of living in the world wear on me, and something about the canopy above and the millions of microcosms of life below heals my wounded soul. I breathe in life in the woods. Slowing down reminds me of how to live deliberately in the rushing world of people and commerce and cement.

I looked to the trees that gray afternoon, and they stood with skeletal silence, staring at the firmament. The only sign of life was a pin oak tree, holding onto its russet leaves like a mother who just can’t let her children go. Or maybe the leaves were the ones holding on.

I pondered it, thinking of Christ’s words about abiding: “ If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6).

Somewhere on a well-manicured lawn, far from this woods, a man in a green plaid coat set fire to the leaves that blanketed his yard. I saw it happen in October. But he didn’t burn the oak leaves. They held on, and by the sign of the pin oak, I guessed they were still clinging.

Sometimes we just have to cling to the One who brings life. When the austerity of winter strikes, when the snow falls by surprise, we learn much from the oak leaves when we simply cling to the Source. Clinging to the Source is mostly about clinging to his love, believing in his love, and living in the realization of his love with a sheer refusal to let go. Christ goes on: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (verse 9).

I don’t know where your life is hard today. But my hope is that you’ll seize the lesson of the oak leaves. Cling to the One who brought you forth.

I walk farther, passing a small grove of oaks, all bearing their weathered leaves with the solemn stance of mourners at a funeral. Refusing to let go. And this is when it hits me. It’s not up to the leaves to hold on. If it were up to the leaves, every tree would bear their ginger winter foliage. It’s the steadfastness of the oak tree that refuses to let go of the leaves. I glance to my weak faith, and I am deeply encouraged.

Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Fields.