I remember the day I first noticed the oak. Clad in my snow gear, I braved the Minnesota winter to get some fresh air and take a brief break from the challenges I was facing. The lake was frozen over and covered with drifts of snow. The sky had a pewter hue that indicated more precipitation was on the way. All the trees had lost their leaves months before, so they resembled toothpicks stuck at odd angles in the drifts.
But in the midst of this gray and white landscape, I saw the oak’s trunk was thicker and darker than any other tree on the hill, which meant the oak stood out in vivid contrast to the snow behind it. Its symmetrical branches stretched long and curved upward. Each branch was topped by a shorter but equally symmetrical one until they met at the top where the straight trunk dissolved into a massive head of twigs. This was the time of year when most trees were their ugliest. But amid the chill of winter, the heart of this tree was revealed as a massive candelabra. It was the most beautiful tree on the hill.
Since then, I’ve observed that oak in every season. In spring, when I’m anxious for signs of growth and new life, the oak is the last on the hill to bud. When its leaves finally do appear, they’re a serviceable green. They must perform their photosynthetic relatively duties well since the tree continues to grow, but in summer, the vibrant green foliage of the surrounding trees almost obscures the oak. In autumn, the maples get all the attention with their brilliant reds. While the oak leaves turn a respectable shade of yellow, they can’t compare to the flashy colors around them.
Year after year, the oak is most noticeable and distinctive when the lake freezes, the sky fills with clouds, and snow blankets the ground. In that bleak, monochromatic landscape, the oak is the most remarkable tree on the hill because it symbolizes what we can be when adversity strikes. What if the moments when we are the most beautiful come in our proverbial winters, when our harsh environment strips us of every distraction and pretense and reveals who we are on the inside?
Some of us flower in spring. Some provide shade in the summer sun. Some blaze with fiery colors in autumn. And some very special people inspire us by revealing their true selves in the bleakness of winter—a time when beauty has the power to make the greatest difference.