As Nashville’s spring progresses, I watch trees I thought I knew in my yard and neighborhood. Buds on every twig fatten and burst into unlikely masses—miniature leaves impossibly tiny and in the cleanest, clearest greens. Then there are the flowers: an elm blossom small enough for a LEGO minifigure corsage, a redbud keel ballet slipper, a sugar maple dangly earring. Foot-tall hickory saplings are perhaps most bizarre, with huge spokes of showgirl bud sclaes drooping and curled, hanging like petals. How can buds so compact hold such outrageous complication? It’s like origami—on a grand scale.
When I was pregnant, my brother-in-law-the-rabbi taught me what to say upon hearing that any woman is expecting: the superstitious and therefore traditional Jewish response is b’sha’a tova, or “may it happen at a good hour.” Not mazal tov / good luck—not yet—which tempts fate (ptu ptu ptu!), and which must be reserved for the day a healthy baby exits a healthy mother. B’sha’a tova is expectant, hopeful, yet cautious. It’s the phrase I think of when I see tree buds in winter.
The similar-sounding blessing of shana tova could work for buds, too: “a good year,” but that phrase is too rooted in a particular time to be easily transplanted as a winter wish. Jews say shana tova in the fall and only in the fall, when our moveable feast of a calendar dictates when the month of Tishrei shall itself, fall.
May it happen at a good hour: may winter tree buds ripen in spring, may a late freeze not “nip them in the bud,” may a white-tail deer not devour every single damn one within nibbling reach, may squirrels ignore them, may a disease not deflate them. And, may they keep me alive.
Before I started naturalist training, winters were much longer. Or so they seemed. With no visual clue that spring would ever come, I usually succumbed to at least one marathon respiratory infection, and worse, the double whammy of Depression and Anxiety, always harder to fight during colder, darker days. My mojo dwindled as the year drained toward the solstice, as sunset came earlier and sunrise later. It was a winter of dis-content in both senses of the noun, both pronunciations: con-tent’ (no comfort) and con’-tent (no substance). I had no evidence to prove winter would end.
And then I found tree buds, thanks to a metro park winter tree hike and twig class. Evidence was everywhere and always had been—all winter long—but I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t even known to look. Every bud on every tree is a new leaf or flower waiting to unfold. And, even more miraculous, every bud is unique to its tree. Not only are buds a sign of spring, they are a sign of species: buds are both poetically general and acutely particular. A wee onion of a dogwood flower bud is nothing like the fat, velvet, lemony paintbrush bud of a star magnolia, nor the clustered, scaly buds of the oak family. Identifying a tree by naked twig can often be easier than by leaf later on.
The class began with a park-specific dichotomous key. We were led through a series of paired twig descriptions, and whichever matched our observations led to the next pair of choices, each pair more specific, until we could “key out” the correct species. With this tool and a hand-lens, we tested a buffet of mystery twigs labeled by number. We looked, felt, scratched, sniffed and sometimes tasted each one, comparing it to the clues in the key. If we already knew a twig, we were to key it out anyway, and to keep mum so other students could reach their own conclusions.
I nearly kept mum about another dichotomy that day. The tree class had been scheduled, unbeknownst to schedulers and attendees, on Tu B’Shevat, a.k.a. Chag ha Illanot, the holiday of trees. Jewish children learn it as The Birthday of the Trees. None of these people had been Jewish children—including me—and none of them had heard of Tu B’Shevat. Given that we’re in Nashville, the buckle of the Bible Belt, I bet a great many had never heard of Rosh Hashanah, either. I hesitate to bring up any “Jewy” subject with strangers, given what a wild card Religion can be. But when Rachel appeared, a metro naturalist with the unique credentials of having also taught at the Jewish Community Center, I did manage to blurt “today is a Jewish holiday about trees.” Rachel knew, of course, but for everyone else the announcement fell as flat as a ripe persimmon under a hiking boot. Still, I’m glad I tried to share the coincidence. A tree class on Tu B’Shevat was the most fortuitous and fortunate of circumstances. It was ideal. It signaled that there was no real dichotomy, no opposition, no division between “nature” and my tradition. And of course, there isn’t, because “nature” is everything.
Tu B’Shevat is in part about the promise of spring. It’s the symbolic day when sap starts to rise in the Land of Israel. I used to think this agricultural, place-based holiday was hard to teach local students because spring in Israel and spring in Nashville do not happen at the same time. But now, I can show twigs. Our trees are still asleep, but the buds announce the certainty of spring every day, months before bloom.
My goal for next year is to not wait till winter, but start looking in the fall. Autumn distracts me, understandably, by its own outrageous show: leaves changing color, leaves falling, and by the fruit of what had been flowers: persimmons, sycamore buttons, hackberry drupes and a world of acorns. But by that point, fresh buds are already set, enfolded, pregnant, even if eclipsed by the bright spectacle at work on the same branch. In which case, our fall greeting shana tova—a good year—is an apt wish for tree buds after all. B’sha’a tova—may it happen at a good hour—we can save for later, when winter’s darkness threatens the spark within us, when the wish can ring the needed note of hope.
B’sha’a tova I can whisper to my dogwood any time from September to April, or to the redbud by the bedroom window, or the sugar maple branch that arches over my car in the driveway. I know to look now. And when the buds do open, then with the mazal tov. The bud is birthed, the tree resumes its cycle, the days grow still brighter.
Years later, I learned that Judaism offers a formal reception for this particular birth: a once-a-year blessing for tree buds when they open—bracha ha ilanot. This blessing is so specific, it is only for blossoms of fruit trees, not for their emerging leaves. I wonder if “fruit” means fruit that people actually eat, like olives and apples, or just any seed surrounded by an ovule, for example sugar maple and hackberry? My first thought was that the authors of the blessing were grateful for the visual portent of a good orchard harvest—flower = fruit—but the blessing is worded generously: it is for “good creations and good trees for the pleasure of humankind.” Sugar maple and hackberry certainly bring me pleasure (and I do nibble hackberry drupes when fresh, but that is another story). Perhaps any tree blossom is included in the blessing’s codified praise, and if so, I can legally mumble the words to a native persimmon (definitely edible) or to a dogwood (definitely not) on equal terms. Beauty triumphs over utility.
There is one more readymade Hebrew response I use at this point—the point of bud bloom, whether flower or unblessed leaf—one that includes me as the observer, as the one who watched and waited and nowneeds to mark the occasion because I feel as changed as those buds. I say the shehechiyanu, an all-purpose prayer of gratitude. Jews use this one as often as possible, and it is my favorite. I have no problem that it thanks a higher power. I don’t even get my secular knickers in a wad about the liturgical nomenclature of that power. I appreciate having a formula to hand, and see no urgent need to try and key out a precise ID. When faced with redbud blooms erupting from twig, branch and even right smack out of the bark of the trunk, I know I face something big. Duh.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the Universe, Who has granted us life,
sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment.
Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam
she-ecḥeyanu ve’ki’eh’manu ve’higiy’anu laz’man hazeh