From Trees

Every year it comes to this, I would imagine–though I can’t say I remember it, surprised as I am every time: the air cleared of humidity so you could see for miles if the way lay straight; the leaves in that state of going, that thinned-outness–falling or still clinging–that makes every breeze into its own celebration of impermanence.

Getting into the car or climbing out of it again, glancing up from the kitchen table or just for a moment out the bedroom window (because now is an errand or a child needing to be somewhere; because now we are at the homeschool table learning about gerunds; because I’ve just carried in the folded laundry to lay it piled at the foot of the bed), it seizes my whole self by the rims of my eyes: light and leaf, all golden. It is insistent: Look.
Everett had his first regatta on Saturday. Ten boats out on the water at once, chasing one another past and around the fat, floating markers, coming about in a roll tack that took my breath. He crewed this time, but some day he’ll be the skipper. After every turn at a race, he came up the dock and then the steps to greet me, his cheeks ruddy, his hair crushed from his hat. Already he knows more about sailing than I do, and I tell him I wish his great-grandfather was there, how proud he’d be to see his namesake out on the water. His Skipper had merry blue-eyes; Everett’s are serious and chocolate; and both of them know the slap and suck of water against the hull, the language of a taut line creasing the palm, how to look for and listen to the wind.
Now is when the maples along the line of the yard make their march toward the house. They’ve all gone to lace again, just like they did in spring, but they’ve exchanged the chartreuse dress for yellow. I would swear they get closer in the fall. Their branches lean toward us; in the earliest morning they start to glow before the sun comes up. They get more earnest in autumn–all the trees do; they mean business. If ever you will notice these silent ones, it will be now, when they are shouting. But I don’t know what they are saying, unless they are offering instructions in how to hold a departing thing, a thing that will detach, must let go, drop so prettily away.
Will is like the leaves these days, coming in gusts and then going again: school, work, lesson, plans, practice. The first wave of college applications has departed from his laptop and the next wave piles up and he remains unruffled. It’s hard (inexperienced parents that we are) not to think about it: what this application means, or that one; where he’ll be a year from now. The future is always a tenuous thing; it is blurry around the edges–while right now, when he is home, he is so solidly here. He leaves his pajama pants behind the bathroom door. He makes his bed. He doesn’t do his laundry fast enough. He throws his head back, mouth wide, and laughs at something funny. And so much is funny. 
On Monday, we had the beginnings of a homeschool project, Emma and I, a lesson (I hope) in classification. We collected leaves. I’m trying to recreate from memory the assignment Mr. Zibrida gave us in the eighth grade. We plucked leaves from different trees, noting how they held to the branches (“opposite” or “alternate,” necessary detail) and then passed their characteristics through the sieve of his “Tree Identification Booklet,” something (the teacher in me recoils) duplicated in lavender ink on some closeted mimeograph machine. But my job was the leaves: deciduous or not, opposite or alternate, lobes or serrations or both and how many until–amazement!–I arrived at the name of the tree. And then it was all about waxed paper and the iron on its lowest setting, sealing the leaves for eternity between sheets like clouded vellum, with labels fixed in the corners. I bound mine with yarn and used construction paper for the covers and it lives on, I’m sure, at the bottom of a box somewhere.
But I remember the leaves, and it was this I hoped for as Emma and I headed out of the house with a pen and a post-it note and an old, zippered CD case that had pockets made of plastic. She was none too happy about this chore: it was cold, for starters, and her mind couldn’t possibly be where mine was: the hill-pocked lawns of a suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood and the sweet smell of wax melting under a warm iron.

Happily, she warmed to the task–and how could she help it? The light streamed down through the all-clear sky, and the dog was glad to be out. Emma chose leaves from three trees in our yard; she chose a leaf (it’s a maple) from the neighbor’s. We walked down the trail behind our house, and the trees strained the light through their wide-spread palms, unabashed in their display of lobe, serration, and myriad, vital vein. We hadn’t gotten very far at all before the pages of the CD case were full.

That was when Emma said she might like to get the camera, “for an art project,” she said.


A week has gone by and the leaves are nicely dried and flattened now beneath the weight of The Joy of Cooking. Soon it will be time to pull them out and pass them through the sieve of the tree-identification website–Mr. Zibrida (very understandably) made me return my booklet to him all those years ago. I think Emma will enjoy this part of the project, as she will (I know it) enjoy ironing them in waxed paper. Soon enough, I think, she is likely also to forget it, as she has forgotten her tableau– two-thirds constructed–of the habitat of the Native American people of the long-house, which is residing in its almost-finished state on her desk in a corner of her bedroom.

This afternoon the sky clouded over. Now I hear light rain like sleet outside. We are promised some snow. The leaves can’t possibly stand up to this. They will all be down by the end of the month–and we know the end of the story, anyway: the bare, light- or snow-limned branches, enduring their emptiness as though this change, too, were part of the design.

One can learn a lot from trees.


2 thoughts on “From Trees

  1. As always, your writing has touched my heart and my memories. How I hated that science project of collecting leaves. I have strong memories of fighting with my mother over the brand of wax paper. She bought the generic brand. The name brand was better for ironing. I did poorly on the assignment and, of course, the wax paper was to blame. I also despised the toothpick bridges in that class.

    I recall mr. Zibrida being my 7th grade teacher and Mr. Foor being my eight grade one. I don't clearly recall 6th grade, but I do remember not having Mr. Early…and the snake.

    It is amazing that those 7th or 8th grade acorns now are fully grown trees with their own bright green leaves. They have dropped and watch take root acorns of their own while at the same time watching the trees from which they came display bright colored leaves and sadly, disappear. My forest, thus far, has been filled with a great variety and I am glad that you have been part of it



  2. Kim, You are right. This assignment must have been for Mr. Foor–unless we did it in 7th grade for Mr. Zibrida. I don't know. In any case, it's fun to hear you recall their names and to know we both know and remember. I had Mr. Early in the sixth grade. The snake didn't make a big impression on me– or not so much, anyway, as the fact that he wore slippers all of the time. !

    The toothpick bridge was a good project in theory, I suppose, but I don't think I brought anything I'd learned in terms of physics to bear on my design. I don't think I learned much at all regarding physics. At any rate, most of what I know about it I've learned from experience and not a classroom or textbook.

    Thanks so much for reading and responding. I'm grateful, too, that we share some important history, and that our lives still intersect–if only electronically, for now–as grown-ups.


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