Twenty-three and Four
A clear, sunny day with a haze over the hills from the unexpected warmth, just over 60 degrees. At a distance things are soft; up close, here in the tree, branches are sharp and clear against the open sky.
Twenty-three. The number of leaves remaining on my tree, at my best count. I search the twigs of the farthest branches, take care to distinguish which belong to other trees in the back, where branches cross. Twenty-three lone, curled, dried-up leaves clinging to to the tree. This might sound like a lot, but in the immense branching double lobe of the tree, it is almost none. It has been estimated that a mature tree can have 200,000 leaves in summer. In which case roughly one ten thousandth of this tree’s leaves remain.
Twenty-three does not include a dozen or so other leaves that remain on the tree in three dense clusters of five to ten leaves each. In each case, the branchlet supporting these leaves is visibly broken, snapped where it meets its branch but still hanging on. There must be something about the connection between tree and leaf that allows–compels?–the leaf to fall. Which is kind of interesting if you think about it: they cannot become separate if they are not fully joined.
Curious, I read about what makes leaves fall, and learn that the tree, in order to rid itself of foliage before winter, sends a chemical message to each leaf. This hormone triggers the growth of a band of abscission cells in the stem of the leaf that makes the stem brittle, and eventually pushes the leaf away from the tree. And this of course solves the riddle: if the branch supporting the leaves is partially broken, the message doesn’t make it through. They have nowhere to go.
I’m not sure why I don’t count these leaves. Perhaps because they feel like an aberration. They don’t represent the natural rate at which leaves fall from my tree as the weather grows colder.
Four. The number of oak leaves that have taken up temporary residence in the tree. Falling from a nearby oak tree, they slipped down through the branches of the maple and got hung up. They rest here, suspended in tiny nets of twigs. The maple leaves still on the tree are small, chalky brown, and twisted. These oak leaves are altogether nobler: wide, flat, a burnished reddish brown when the sun shines through them. It’s almost enough to make me wish I climbed an oak tree every day. Two of them lie on their backs in their twig-nests, shifting slightly from their beds in the erratic breeze.
A third is suspended from the bottom of a prayer flag by threads that have come unraveled in the wind.
The last, my favorite, has against all odds been speared by a twig and now dangles vertically, stem up, swiveling gently in the moving air. It looks like it drifted down in such a way that it fell over the twig, but the hole is so small this seems impossible.
The image of this leaf, pierced by the twig it dangles from, draws me. I can’t tell why I find it so powerful. True, we have all been pierced through the heart. And this leaf looks like a shrike hung it there, upon a thorn. But there is something noble about it, too. It is not down there on the forest floor. It remains high up in a tree. The way it rocks with the slightest air movement: it must feel contented. And it has been penetrated by the world; it is not curled into itself, intact and shielded, carpeted by the bodies of its own. It faces the wood and is backlit by the sun. And it is joined, for a little while, with a twig that has made leaves of another kind. And is now, for a little while, a kind of impromptu stem for it.
It is kind of violent and kind of beautiful at the same time. It’s a tiny thing, this pierced leaf at the edge of the wood, but unexpectedly moving.