Just down the street a White Oak tree is shedding it’s leaves.  I have been walking past this tree for many years and I have grown fond of the beauty it adds to the neighborhood.  Today I noticed hundreds – thousands, maybe – of its leaves on the ground. Their photosynthetic duties now complete, they slough off in ever increasing numbers.  

Overhead the crown of the tree has a lovely russet cast, but I found myself getting absorbed by the leaves at my feet.  The variety of shapes and colors was remarkable.  Many trees show variability in their leaf shape – even within the same tree.  Oaks are no exception to this rule.  The variations on the theme of White Oak in Autumn was on display.

All the oak leaves had smooth edges, but were quite different in shape. Their hue and form gave each one a unique mood, different than it’s kin.  The whole business makes me think of fractals, those seemingly random patterns in nature that are, on closer investigation, often quite ordered and geometric. I’m certain there is an deep and ordered “oakness” to the White Oaks species as there surely is for the cousins: the Reds, Burs, and Pins.  But don’t look for order in the leaves.

The botanist in me wonders when exactly this wholesale shapeshifting takes place.  Each leaf emerges from a bud in the spring. And it grows, and grows.  As do all of it’s siblings on the tree. They’re all in a race for that sunlight, and they only get as big as need be.  In concert with it’s others the leaf grows and writhes, expands into it’s odd skin.  A bit like a tethered green butterfly with an organic asymmetric wing.    

The work is done, the season has played out. The wine-colored weakened leaf now sails back to Earth.  It’s atoms will slowly be leached away by snow and rain, they will be reconfigured and repackaged.  Repurposed, perhaps in a future blade of grass?   Meanwhile, the next crop of leaves slumber – tighter than ticks – within tiny buds.  High up in the crown they wait to seek the shape of things to come.                   

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Dave Coulter

I have been a horticulturist for thirty years working in the Chicago area and beyond. I have lived in Oak Park for over thirteen years. My writing has recently appeared in the journal Ecological Restoration...