Marcescence – the art of not letting go

I think this is the alpine hairy cap moss, Polytrichastrum alpinum
I think this is the alpine hairy cap moss, Polytrichastrum alpinum

I was in Denmark, Maine, this weekend doing very Maine things. Shoving sclerotized sunshine (wood) into the belly of an iron wood stove. Walking alongside a mountain brook with moss-covered rocks licked with a verglas (ver-glaze) of ice. The verglas an art of steely-eyed primeval monsters frozen in time or a hundred fingers overlapping each other to grip the rock. For a time the ice held my imagination as it held the rocks.

I, for the first time in my life, enjoyed a superheated sauna. And once my body reached the right temperature, a local convinced me to jump in an icy brook. The mercurial abuse I gave my body made me superhuman. It detoxified my spirit and I bravely walked in the nighttime air shirtless, immune to deep fall’s icy breath. It was the crunch of snow under my tender feet that reminded me that I was a mortal.

Absorbing the painful joy of steep hikes on a snow-dusted mountain, I took in the tinkling spread of sunshine of moss that held tiny bits of ice, like tinsel on a tree. It was the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), however, that drew most of my attention. On its branches were papery brown leaves – leaves that will loiter on the branches all winter unlike the rest of the foliage that was now underfoot. Marcescence is the term for deciduous trees that do not shed their leaves though they’ve lost their color. Throughout the mountainside was a forest of leaves that refused to fall despite the namesake of the season.

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, Denmark, Maine (1)

The American beech. Onto its leaves it holds.
The American beech. Onto its leaves it holds.

The hypotheses about why a tree may keep its leaves throughout the winter range from deterring the nibbling deer to preserving its nutrients. I am too lazy to do the research on the science of marcescence. Fortunately, my good friend David Haskell (another great wordsmith scientist) has done that work already.

I have my own marcescence, hanging onto things that I should have long ago shed. In my closet loiters a pair of jeans that I won’t wear because they are more holes than jeans, but keep because they are extremely comfortable. I say I will fix them one day. No. No, I won’t. I should dispose of these vagrants.

My mind holds onto memories that I don’t need. From worthless minutiae about the fact that I had only one egg with my pancake last Wednesday (I only had two eggs left and I broke one of them trying to flip it for over-easy and I threw it away frustrated – why do I need that taking up space in my brain?) to painful memories of anger. Of recriminations. Of hurt and of heartache.

And it is my heart that is the guiltiest of marsescence. I have lingered too long in relationships where we enjoyed a hopeful spring that erupted into a frenzied summer that then reached a fall withering. In the winters of those relationships I have held onto the leafy reminders of those summery days, hopeful of their return when I should have let those dead leaves drop.

It is not yet clear why the leaves of the beech do not drop. Maybe the beech is like me. It simply cannot let go.

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