The deciduous trees stand, bare and apparently lifeless through the winter months. The popular take on this, is that they are sleeping. It is a perspective which depends on paying no attention or thought to what the trees are really doing. Those bare branches are a misleading focus.


In the spring, these trees will put forth new leaves. Many also produce catkins; temporary sex-organs essential for pollination and the creation of new trees. Neither pops spontaneously into existence come the spring. While the branches are bare, trees are getting ready for the next round of growth. The ash will have its black buds through much of the winter, ready to get going again. In the UK, catkins are already forming ready for next spring. Those trees are busy!


The really interesting thing, is that we do not know what prompts trees to start readying their buds and catkins ready for the next season. It’s not a simple trigger – light levels and temperature are not what’s going on here. The arrival of buds varies a lot, and while a harsh winter will tend to make all things later, trees do not magically know what the weather will do. Sometimes they get it wrong and lose first leaves to late frosts. There is nothing inherent in winter that suggests the coming of spring. You have to know, or remember that this cold, dark bit isn’t permanent. You need to have a grasp on how long it will last. In just the same way you need to know about the necessity of shedding leaves. We might be talking ‘know’ in terms of a responsive chemical system rather than more human ideas of conscious thought. Still, we do not know the mechanics of how trees go about their business.


It is also true that when humans appear to be asleep, all kinds of things are going on. We heal, and we consolidate learning. We understand these somewhat better than we do the secret habits of trees, but our own unconscious minds represent an unfamiliar country. There are things – menstruating cycles for example – that we know to do at a biological level but have no conscious insight into the running of.


It is all too easy to say ‘oh, it’s nature’ as though that explains something. Actually, it explains nothing. If trees know about the spring, they must have some mechanism for knowing. Something underpins the system that starts making new leaves. Trees might not have a familiar biology for consciousness, but they certainly aren’t oblivious. Just because they appear to be doing nothing in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, doesn’t mean nothing is happening.