As the leaves leave ...

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The leaves, though little time they have to live,

Were never so unfallen as today,

And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve

The very light from which time fell away.

A showered fire we thought forever lost

Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,

They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.

Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street.

It is the light of maples, and will go;

But not before it washes eye and brain

With such a tincture, such a sanguine glow

As cannot fail to leave a lasting stain.

Richard Wilbur

October Maples, Portland


The year begins leafless and ends leafless. But in between, oh my. 

The last leaves are falling now, but it was quite a party while it lasted. The altered array of sometimes dazzling hues draws attention to itself as if to say, "Look at us before we go. You will miss us when we're gone." Green gave way to gold reluctantly this year, orange and red leaving its imprint on the eyes, as Wilbur says above, a lasting stain before the landscape goes brown and grey and silver and white. Leafletting the sidewalks, unceremoniously dumped following the recent hard freeze, plastered in piles on the ground, warning us of what's ahead.

I miss them already but never took them for granted, and I look forward to the next generation, issued by these soldier-straight leaf factories, next year's buds already in place.

I used to liken the leafless limbs of winter to exposed nerve endings — raw, unprotected, and vulnerable — but now I see a different kind of beauty in the gracefully curving limbs, tapering to capillary branches against the grey sky. The skeletal shapes, minus their festive overcoats, have their own lovely form.

Trees contradict winter's impressive impersonation of death, impervious to the frosted icing and whatever other affronts the arctic winds might cast their way. They teach us, year in and out, to hold fast in our deepest despair to the belief that a small miracle awaits us come spring, their trunks a reminder that the Old English word for truth is treowth, inspired by the true-ness of their growth.

These dinosaurs of the plant world seem inert but are very much alive, even as they simulate the silence, and companionship, of God.

Come spring, against all odds, green tips pierce the protective shells of buds; blossoms burst, turning nectar-seeking bees into agents of vegetation consummation; seeds shed, elms dropping motherlodes of uncooked oatmeal, maples whirlycoptering in search of fecund landings, cottonwood fluffs re-enacting snowfall in late May. A new generation is upon us and we are briefly astonished, watching as the canopy thickens, obscuring the sky, inhaling carbon, exhaling oxygen, our very mirror opposites.

Come summer, the dense foliage overhangs, enfolds us and nearly overwhelms, bordering on the tropical. Its constancy creates the illusion of permanence. We would take it for granted were it not for the shade, holding off too-close-for-comfort sunshine, soothing us even as, like Wilbur's sieve, it lets through a ray here, a dapple there.

Tree roots dislodge slabs of sidewalk, trunks grow right through chain-link fences. They perfume the air, bear fruit, drop acorns and black walnuts to fatten the squirrels, allow insects to burrow into their textured bark — even the ones with exotic names like emerald ash-borer who will kill them — and they harbor hidden nests for generations of birds and wasps. 

They cool our houses, anchor our soil, reach skyward to filter the air and burrow waterward, deep underground. They serve as memorials to our dearly departed, plaques at their feet reminding us of those who "lived well, laughed often and loved much." But trees themselves model how to live — strong and fixed at their base, bendable and flexible in their limbs, sinking roots, providing hospitable refuge, bearing fruit, casting seeds to the wind on the off chance some will germinate. 

Some are older than our ancestors. They inspire those who question whether truth even exists anymore. It does, they say. Look at us, look all around. And we do, sitting on benches made from trees. We surround ourselves with harvested wood in our homes and public buildings, and we invite fir trees inside during the winter holidays to fill our homes with the scent of the North Woods. 

Of all their gifts, though, the greatest is beauty.

We are wealthy in trees — roughly 18,000 in the village right-of-way, according to Village Forester Rob Sproule, plus another 2,500 or so in our parks, according to the park district's Diane Stanke. No one knows how many more can be found on private property. Our "urban forest" counts old-growth oaks and survivor elms, besieged ash, umbrella maples, sweetgums, tulip trees, magnolias, horse chestnuts and buckeyes, redbuds and dogwoods, catalpas, lindens, crabapple, hawthorns and hackberrys, alders and cedars, black locusts and honey locusts, shagbark hickorys, river birches, boxelders, sycamores, beeches whose bark looks like elephant skin, and ornamental pears whose leaves are the last to turn and drop — even ginkgos in spite of their stinkberries (though noble in all other respects). Their names fall from the tongue as easily as bird songs strike the ear.

So many varieties, yet they never go to sleep in winter as Norway maples and wake up in the spring as yellow poplars. They know who they are. Trees have mastered the seasons — the flamboyant changeability of spring and fall, the reliable steadfastness of summer and winter. 

And here they are again on the cusp of winter. The last leaves falling. The boughs having purged themselves, releasing what isn't perennial and preparing to go dormant. Meanwhile, we busy ourselves with raking and blowing and disposing of this year's crop, so much so that we forget the one task that remains.

Saying goodbye.

And thanks. 


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Martin A. Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: December 1st, 2017 7:20 AM

Wow! A little Joyce Kilmer, a nod to William Wordsworth, and all of it Ken Trainor. Beautifully done.

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