For the past week, because the world of human beings was a depressingly stupid place, I took solace in the leaves.
It was their week anyway, their swan song, their leave-taking. But before their final bow, for their encore, they blushed, flush with red and yellow and orange and brown, a crescendo of color.
Since April, these leaves have been our comforting companions, easily taken for granted, but not in this, their peak week, with flattering flourish, as if to command our attention one last time.
After their seven-month pantomime of permanence, they made a shameless show of glorious fragility. How many leaves do you suppose festoon these trees? Hundreds for sure, maybe a thousand, maybe more. Now with reckless extravagance, dozens take flight with each small gust, as if this were all pre-arranged. Careful collusion. Some signal sent. Ready? Let’s soar.
This, their moment of genuine freedom at last, airborne, twirling, tumbling, floating, somersaulting. This is what it’s like to be a bird! ’S wonderful, marvelous. I envy them their climax and wonder what show mine might make someday. But they will return next April, or others just like them. It is we who do not return. This is the sweet melancholy of autumn.
They detach so softly, as if awaiting just this breeze-burst to set them adrift, as if longing for it, having fulfilled their mission, as if their final, fervent wish was to give themselves back to the soil. Some flutter from the greater height of an old-growth oak, nestling down, down, into the limbs of a smaller maple, thick with yellow leaves that resemble widespread hands, waiting to catch them. But most find their way to the grass below or plaster the pavement like a collage project, wet with recent rain, striking a pose before decomposing.
Once upon another time, I wrote, in the guise of an ancient Irish woman, whose voice I was surprised to find lurking within, who spoke of “leaves fallin’ sleepy like they didn’t care anymore, and coverin’ the ground so I can’t help but crush them with my unmindful feet, hearing their cracklin’ as if with every assault of my boot, they surrendered the holy oil of life.
“It reminds me of Eden’s autumn, when the persuadable woman, seduced early and ever after, broke the seal o’ the summer’s fruit, and saw her sin in the ensuin’ decay, and saw her shame in the blushin’ o’ the leaves. With each cold draft now, I feel a little deeper the despair that drove us from the garden.
“But how will I hear the soft singin’ o’ the wind when the trees are all barren and there’s nothin’ to tame it but the hard and brittle branches? And where will life be hidin’ then?
“I’ve come to dread the changin’ o’ the seasons. It tears you. And what do I find scattered about my feet just now but the pages of my life, listin’ my regrets and the witherin’ of opportunity.”
I was 23 then and recited it one night in 1975 with friends, using the best brogue I could muster. A friend in attendance was inspired by my prose, and the music of another, to work up the courage to court a woman in whom he was interested. They have been married 44 years, and the pages of their forged life list no regrets, no withering of opportunity.
Almost a half-century later, neither do the leaves scattered about my feet just now.
Boris Pasternak, through the eyes of Zhivago, saw in the falling leaves life’s impermanence, not something to be mourned so much as marked, savored, honored. The life cycle working its magic.
These aren’t metaphors falling so gently, almost joyously to the ground. They are the very leaves that blessed this passing year, finishing their mission with a flourish. I don’t praise them so much as look up to them, enjoy them while still here.
Following a few blustery days filled with rain and even snow squalls, many trees, dense with their thousand leaves just a week ago, have been stripped bare. Others have shed and shed and still have hundreds of leaves left to go, aglow with color, even under the greyest of skies.
The changing climate has pushed peak color into November, and we are too ignorant or greedy or lazy or corrupt to do much about that. But I can’t help secretly being pleased by the company of leaves for several weeks more.
Still, it would be unseemly to complain about bare limbs when these trees yielded a bumper crop and show no signs of withholding their bounty as we look forward to another spring in our fertile suburban forest.