In Defense of Leaves

Most of us are familiar with calendar pictures of eastern states in autumn, depicting the colorful deciduous trees. Too often in California leaves are taken for granted, and fallen leaves, removed for reasons I do not understand. It seems only fitting that after a rainstorm, leaf shadows sometimes remain on the sidewalk, as a subtle reminder. One of my childhood memories is of a neighbor who swept her walkways and patio following inclement weather, seemingly disgruntled by the sight of leaves “littering” her yard.  Yet, I myself remember walking three blocks to school, delighted by the rustle of leaves as I shuffled through mounds of fallen foliage.

As an adult, I enjoy a myriad of colors in my personal garden.  Glossy Oregon grape leaves, flashing bits of scarlet and butter yellow in the sunlight.  Felted flannel bush leaves that dry to a muted pumpkin, and buff oak mulch thick beneath mature trees.  A California grape vine, circling branches of the woodland canopy, form a brilliant crimson wreath in October.  Sycamore leaves, too large to drift to the ground unencumbered, are often caught midway perched, like ornaments in the shrubs and tree branches.  Only a brisk wind will cause all to fall at once.  With these thoughts in mind, I searched for words and images, to deliver a message in defense of leaves.

They dress the garden like garments in changing seasonal shades that later cloak the woodland floor, providing mulch, texture and habitat.  Diminutive apple-green needles on the dawn redwood turn copper before silently dropping an iridescent quilt beneath bared branches. The rounded olive-green leaves of smoke tree turn the color of Merlot, and an otherwise dark area of my garden shimmers like an illuminated lantern, when the mature sycamore transitions to gold.      

During a business trip to San Francisco I was crossing the street in the rain, when I collected a sycamore leaf, from the sidewalk.  It was golden yellow and green, perfectly flat, supple and dripping wet.  Larger that both of my hands held side by side, I carried it across both palms to my hotel room where I placed it on the windowsill. Whether due to the heat in my room, or the sunlight streaming though the window I do not know but by the next morning I found its edges curled upward and the leaf dried into a perfect and precise bowl-shaped dish.   Before going to breakfast I picked it up by the stem and on the way to the elevator left it atop a glass sideboard in the foyer.  From a distance the leaf looked very much like a gilded antique candy dish my mother once kept amongst her fine china collection.  

Returning after breakfast to my room I saw that the leaf was still in the exact place, undisturbed.  An hour later as I prepared to leave, housekeeping was in the hallway dusting and vacuuming.  During the moments I stood in the elevator, just before the doors began closing, I saw the housekeeper eye the leaf questioningly. She approached it, poked it with her index finger, as if to determine the substance of which it was made, then swept it into her trash receptacle.  I wondered how leaves ever became confused with trash, when in actuality they are essential for life.  Some of my favorite vegetables are actual leaves.  Beyond their beauty, and their importance in creating the organic component of soil, another quality captures my attention…their sound.

Wind stirring through an aspen grove is like a symphony of paper wind chimes. In my personal garden a single sycamore leaf can be heard cascading from the uppermost branches of a tree to a lower bough, before landing with an audible “scuff” on the ground beneath. Foliage of oak and eucalyptus crunch and snap beneath my feet as I walk in the southeast part of my garden, while pine needles on the opposite side cushion garden paths, making for a quiet stroll.  Leaves float and dance on their journey from the stems that hold them to the soil that awaits them.