At my wife’s and my daughter’s mutual suggestion, as a possible inspiration for this week’s column, I ventured out onto our front lawn this afternoon to pick up a single maple leaf. Our lawn, today, is totally covered with such leaves, and our big tree is not empty yet. It wasn’t difficult to find one leaf to bring in. I simply bent down and got a nice, bright red one.
As I look at it now, my simple maple leaf seems both exactly like all the others on the lawn, somehow, but, at the same time, different from all the others. When I first picked the leaf up, I thought of how the red-tinted sea of gold at my feet blanketed the earth just as the snowflakes of winter will, not many weeks from now. Picking my leaf was vaguely similar to observing a particular snowflake, among millions, after they, as the leaves, have settled down onto the lawn, from their ride through the air. As you know, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, even as they form a covering that seems as if it is made of precisely identical, tiny objects of white perfection. Today, so it seemed with the leaves.
I just now looked at my leaf again, as it sits on the arm of my recliner, as I continue to write. You know, and I thought, as I looked at it, that there is nothing inherently special about my leaf. It is a bit unique, in some ways, but I know that if I were to go out onto the porch, close my eyes, and allow the breeze to take the leaf away, I would never see it again. It would disappear into the crowd. If I did see it, I would not recognize it. Its specialness at this moment is in the fact that it is an individual, and that it has been picked from the rest, to fulfill a purpose that the others have not been asked to do. It is here to help me write this column. While being as different from all the others as one person’s face is from all other faces, my leaf still shares its entire identity with those others, even as we share our identity with all of mankind. Please let me tell you how I feel that this is so.
My leaf has a particular shape, a particular heritage, by which it is known to be nothing else but a maple leaf. It was formed for the same general purpose as all those other leaves now laying in the yard. It had, approximately, the same life span as the other leaves. Looking carefully at my leaf, I see the beauty of the bright red color which made me notice it, and pick it up, in the first place. But, up close I can see the leaf’s imperfections, and notice that it has small blemishes, and even pock-marked signs of disease. My leaf, as all the others, has a stem, through which it was connected to its family tree. This connection nourished and coaxed it to grow, from a spring bud, to an unfolding, youthful version of the lush green example of vibrant life that it soon became. Looking closely again, I can see the veins through which the leaf contributed to the life of that family tree; the same passageways through which it, in turn, got its own life.
My leaf’s future is not one of continued growth and vibrancy. Right now it is still somewhat soft, and not yet brittle, but that will soon change. It is interesting, to me, that, as my daughter Faith recently taught us on the ride home from a family apple-picking afternoon, that a red or gold leaf always contained the color that it assumes in the fall of its life. It’s just that it isn’t until the chlorophyll finally leaves the leaf that its true color, its true beauty, shows through. When Faith said that, the realization came to me that leaves reveal their greatest beauty as they approach the end of life. It is as if they go out in a blaze of glory, announcing to the onlooking, leaf-peeping world that their job is finished, that they can now show who they really are. I thought, as I thought of this, that we should take heart in the possibility that, in some ways, we can be just like the leaves. We can live, and grow, and nourish our family tree, and then go out as something that is aged, but beautiful.
Now I’m going to head back outside, and allow my leaf to colorfully rejoin the others on the lawn… who are just like it, but still so very different.