Just Below the Surface

One of my favorite plants in our garden is a witch hazel shrub that grows along the back fence. In the decade we’ve owned the house, the witch hazel has grown more vibrant and beautiful each year, full of flowers in late winter and dense, lush foliage throughout the spring and summer. Its flowering in February and March is an eagerly anticipated signal that winter is coming to a close.

Earlier this month, I did some pruning of the trees and shrubs in our home landscape. It’s an annual chore where I go around, taking out any diseased or dying branches. I can’t remember ever having to take a branch off the witch hazel — until this year. The flower buds on one of the branches were smaller and less plentiful than the rest of the shrub, a sure sign that the branch was dying.

After pruning the branch, I could see what was hidden under a perfectly good covering of bark. Only a pie-shaped portion of the heartwood was still fresh and living. Had the diminutive flower buds not given me a signal, I would have never known the branch was so unhealthy.

Under the bark of all woody plants is a layer of vascular tissue that is its lifeline, transporting water and nutrients throughout the plant. In this tissue lies the vitality of the plant. The bark serves as the guardian of this tissue, protecting it from the weather and other environmental impacts. But the bark also hides the waning health of the plant, often until it is too late to save it.

It made me wonder if we are like these trees and shrubs, hiding our lack of health or satisfaction under a facade of health and happiness. How many of us are walking around with great-looking bark, but a suffering vitality just below the surface? How many of us continue to hide behind our bark, as the living portion of our heartwood slowly dies? How many of us never reveal the true state of our vitality until it is too late to save us?

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