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Learning from silence

Learning from silence

By Maria Evans

“I believe in the sun even if it isn’t shining. I believe in love even when I am alone. I believe in God even when He is silent.”

~~Author unknown, allegedly found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany which was a hiding place during the Holocaust.

Just north of my driveway, in a little rectangular tongue of my pasture, is an incredibly large and stately cottonwood tree–about 70-80 feet tall. Once upon a time there must have been other trees near it–it is not entirely straight but cants about 20 degrees to the east–but it presently stands alone in its magnificently imperfect beauty. One of the greatest joys in my remote country “home in the hayfield” is hearing the distinct flapping of my granddaddy cottonwood tree. I have a couple of smaller ones in other parts of my pasture, but they are not particularly close to the house. In the years I have lived here, it’s served occasionally as both a home to Baltimore orioles, and a singles bar for un-mated male mockingbirds who carried on well past midnight. But its primary function in life has been simply to make the wonderful heavenly applause that only a cottonwood tree can make.

The waning days of fall always bring an auditory sadness to my day-to-day life. Each spring begins a cycle of sound to my world. The first cottony dusting of the seeds on my truck reminds me the leaves will be sprouting soon, and I start to train my ears to hear them. The first day the leaves have developed enough to be heard is always a joyful day in my life, no matter what tasks I have before me. Summer brings the constant companionship of its leafy song–so constant (the wind ALWAYS blows in Northeast Missouri) that I almost forget it’s there. But it’s fall–as the leaves begin to thin out and drop–that reminds me the most of the sound it makes.

Cottonwoods don’t drop their leaves all at once. My tree undergoes a roughly five week process of leafy alopecia, getting thinner and thinner, green first mixed with yellow and then brown, my driveway turning browner and browner from the leaves. As it wanes, it seems the remaining leaves get louder and louder as they vigorously flap more openly without their neighbors–or is it my hearing that has become more and more keen?–until the day comes I step outside and hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Every year, that silence grips my heart. What if for some reason it dies over the winter? What if we have one of those late season tornadoes we are known for and it crashes to the ground, or into my garage, or even my house? I simply cannot do without the noise of my cottonwood tree.

I have come to changing the conversation of this silence in the last couple of years to take away my fear. When that fearful moment begins to tighten around my rib cage, I have started to loosen that grip with a single thought: Advent is coming.

One of the things I appreciate about the wisdom of our liturgical calendar is that it contains two seasons of planned silence–Advent and Lent. Both seasons remind me of a very important piece of the Biblical cycle of

Creation–>Sin–>Repentance–>Restoration/Resurrection –that for things to be reborn, they must often die to themselves. That we don’t get to choose the nature of the restoration. That we will be given enough to make it through this time of silence. That what springs forth in the new season will most likely be better than we could have imagined or chosen for ourselves. That it is precisely when things seem the deadest is when the most diligent work of restoration is taking place. My cottonwood tree is not uncomfortable with its silence. I am.

The waning of Time after Pentecost is the perfect time for us to, like the slow five week thinning process of my cottonwood tree, ease into the silence of Advent with anticipation despite the dread. If we only focus on the dread, we deafen ourselves to the tiny stirrings of life inside the womb of Advent. I remind myself that when my cottonwood tree is silent, much is taking place in its outermost limbs, beneath the scaly plates of the little brown buds at their tips, and before long, those buds will swell to bursting and re-open. Even when I imagine my worst case scenario–what if my tree meets its demise?–I hear a voice asking me, “When you can no longer hear the rustle of the cottonwood leaves, what tree will you hear, that you’ve never heard before?”

What might God tell each of us in the silence, that we’ve never heard before, because the noise of the familiar was too comforting?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Padre Michael

I have a lovely fountain pen, received as a gift from a dear friend, made from cottonwood. To the pleasant connections that the pen already calls to mind, I’ll add this: my Advent pen.

Michael Rich


Thank you so much for teaching this transplanted Brit about cottonwood trees. Not only have I read articles about cottonwoods flourishing in urban areas like NYC (including the Brooklyn Botanical Garden) but also, like Maria’s piece above, some utterly breathtaking writing.

Look at this piece from Sunday’s Bismarck Tribune: “One last stolen perfect day in the Dakota Badlands” by Clay Jenkinson:

on cottonwoods:

“This year’s cottonwood leaves are not as profuse, as brilliantly yellow-golden, or as “radioactive” as they sometimes are. There’s a certain half-heartedness to them this time around, though they are still magnificent. When fall cottonwoods are at their best their leaves are like wafer-thin amulets of the sun itself, storing solar intensity and the Lifeforce in an organic memory device the size of an irregular drink coaster, thousands to every tree, hundreds of thousands of cottonwood trees lacing and gracing the banks of the Little Missouri River all the way from Devils Tower to Twin Buttes, ND, and back again. If you stand up on the overlook of Wind Canyon in one of those 23-carat autumns, it makes your knees buckle, the beauty is so profound and heartbreaking.

I listened to the leaves dance in the intermittent breeze as long as I could. It was as perfect a moment as there will ever be in my life: the sky, the muted colors, the temperature, the breeze, the ancient shattered trees, the heritage of the place, the fierce life and endless legacy of TR, and of course the Little Missouri River running through it with its usual unhurried serenity.”

Rob Huttmeyer

Search “Cottonwood Trees New York City” Seems they actually grow better in the city then in more rural areas. And there even a story about a cottonwod growing on top of the Queesnboro bridge

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for your comments. The Eastern Cottonwood is native to most of the eastern half of the US; they tend to grow around ponds or riverbanks here. I don’t think they’re terribly numerous in NY state but perhaps a native will know. NYC–who knows? Wikipedia has a good picture of one and this site; has a good drawing of the leaves. They are large leaves, larger than a maple, and fairly broad with flat stems. Easist way to find them is in the spring when they are shedding “cotton!”


Thank you Maria for your beautifully written and thoughtful post! It has stayed with me since I read it this morning. Although this is a parochial question, I wonder if there are any cottonwood trees in New York City I might look at (or better, listen to) to get a sense of the tree you are describing?

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