“When leaves have to let go of the tree, they wear their best colors and they dance all the way to the ground.” – Karen Kingsbury
In the botanical context, abscission is the shedding of various plant parts, the dropping of leaves, fruit, flowers, or seeds. Senescence means “to grow old” and is the biological term for aging. In plants, the aging and deterioration of cells and tissues, an integral and important part of the plant lifecycle, is genetically programmed and biochemically orchestrated. The genetic sequence of senescence determines the length of the life cycle of a plant variety. Annuals complete their full life cycle, germination to death, in one growing season and must be re-planted each year. Biennials have a two year life cycle and perennials have a multi-year life cycle, some, the herbaceous varieties, dying off to the ground before returning the next year and others, the woody species, adding to their growth year to year.
A multitude of hormones administer strict biochemical control over many plant processes including cell division, cell growth, cell differentiation, and the regulation of developmental processes, such as germination, flowering, stem elongation, flavor development, and senescence of leaves and fruit. Consequently, once fruit ripening has begun, the process is irreversible. Moreover, there are environmental factors, such as seasonal changes in temperature and amount of daylight, that cue the botanical biochemical blast that begets the celebrated and colorful freeing of foliage in deciduous tree species at the end of the growing season each year. The environmental changes signal less hormone production in one very specific area of the leaf, the abscission zone, the zone of separation. As the cells in this zone experience a decrease in hormone production, a very targeted weakening of the cell wall occurs. As this weakening increases, a complete breakdown of the cell wall results and the leaf separates from its attachment at the branch. In addition, the decrease of chlorophyll production, the green pigment in leaves, allows other pigments to shine through, resulting in the vivid yellow, orange, and red pigments, that although always present in the leaves, only are observed as the green pigment recedes at the signaling of senescence. Abscission, the regulated and timely letting go of old growth in deciduous trees, is necessary for new growth to occur. As humans, letting go is a seemingly more arduous, but an equally important process for growth.
Imagine if we only had to sit with what does not serve us just as long as it takes a biochemical band of hormones to recognize, weaken, and destroy our old attachments and ideas, our tired, negative self-talk, and our ancient patterns of worry. With our genetic gifts of consciousness, creative thought, and rich emotions our letting go is much more complex than a clear-cut, physical separation on a cellular level. We must wallow through our ego, fear, illusion, and a myriad of muddled feelings – sadness, loneliness, anger, resentment, insignificance, and a loss of control and connectedness. In addition, we are now standing in the turbid, unpredictable path of a global pandemic and many of us have been separated abruptly from our jobs, routines, and loved ones. We find ourselves scarcely clinging to our branch of normalcy as we struggle to let go of our feelings of uncertainty around our jobs, our income, and our health.
With some practice, we can live fully, dancing vibrantly through life like a fallen, autumnal leaf, free from suffering, attachment, and mental and emotional fixation. Engaging in daily mindfulness practice, grounding ourselves in the present moment, setting aside time for sacred self-care, and holding space for and fully feeling our emotions, wholly affirming that it is OK to not be OK, gives us the courage to let go gracefully into the free fall of change. As we shed what no longer serves us, honoring its place and purpose in our growth, we cultivate a sense of wild freedom, unbounded happiness, limitless personal growth, and deep, engaging relationships with others.
This essay is published in Plants and Poetry Journal’s Autumn Equinox Collection and on their website, http://www.plantsandpoetry.org