One autumn morning we found three yellow leaves arranged just so on the doorstep — a calling card delivered by wind to invite us out into the woods. Trees in the forest who know where we live send leaves by long-distance air — to say Hello or How fares your garden? or The oaks are turning, you must come see. This message included a request for help — the second leaf curled at the edge.
“Time to see the trees,” I said.
You composed a response and sent it by bird, to tell our good friends we were coming.
Leaf-reading can be learned, though it takes persistent study. Look at the shapes, the arrangement, the colors — the syntax is perfectly clear. I’m talking about real leaves, of course, not tiny ones found in tea.
Few town dwellers know how trees correspond, and pay no heed to memos spread on the ground, grumbling instead about having to rake their lawns and clean the gutters. That’s okay — domesticated trees who live in the suburbs have little of interest to say. As long as they’re watered and fed, they’re content to laze in the yard and soak up the sun. They have that in common with cats. Or they loiter along city streets watching cars go by, then dare each other to stretch a branch up into the power lines for the fun of causing some mischief.
Trees like that would never fit in with the worldly-wise types in the woods. And besides, they—
“Are you ready to go?” you asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Sure.” I put on my coat and stuck gloves in my pockets.
We had been invited to an event that occurs throughout the forests at this time of year. Trees call it the Autumn Spirit — a celebration of giving and sharing that involves exchanging leaves, which are then scattered about or released cheerfully into the breeze. Outsiders just think of it as “Fall” — a time to enjoy the colors — but we know it holds a deeper meaning for the forest inhabitants. We were honored to be included, but wondered what the trouble was.
I looked again at the invitation as I shut the door behind us. “Must be a delicate subject, or they would have said what it was about.” Leaf-borne messages aren’t exactly private.
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
You drove, and an hour later we turned onto a narrow dirt road and parked near a hidden path known only to us. We shuffled our way through the red and gold carpet that covered the trail, greeting each tree we knew and meeting some we didn’t. We like to have as many friends in the woods as we can. I don’t mean badgers or foxes or deer. Creatures like that are too unreliable. Trees for the most part stay in one place, so visiting them is easier.
“Here’s the grove,” I said. We had reached the designated spot.
Oaks, poplars, aspens, cottonwoods and more stood about and joined in the exchange — even the evergreens, who usually like to hang on to their needles as long as possible so they can stay active through the winter, maybe because they don’t want to miss Christmas, though getting harvested as a holiday decoration has its drawbacks. Still, they contributed what they could.
We had no gifts of leaves to share, but our hosts assured us, as good hosts do, that our presence was a gift in itself.
The atmosphere of celebration, however, was tempered by an unhappy group of trees standing off to one side, watching the activities with disapproval it seemed, or confusion. They had broad, pointed leaves and smooth bark. I couldn’t place the species, though they looked deciduous. Curiously, their leaves were still fully green, with not a trace of fall color in them.
You nudged me. “That must be what the problem is. They’re not getting into the spirit.”
“They’re not even observing basic conventions of nature.”
We stepped aside from the festivities to see what we could do. We could tell by their accents they weren’t from around here, not that I’m judging.
Turns out, they had recently come here as immigrants — resettled from the tropics I assumed — and had not adapted too well. They were unfamiliar with the local custom of letting one’s leaves turn colors in the fall and drop off onto the ground, exposing the limbs for all to see.
How exotic, they thought, somewhat shocked. They never did that in the old country — show off with garish reds and yellows before completely disrobing. Must be an American thing. They certainly didn’t want their children picking up such habits.
No, we assured them, it’s quite natural among deciduous trees all over the world, in temperate regions anyway. They looked skeptical.
You turned to me. “You’re the botany expert, you explain it.”
I decided to skip the technical details about how the reduced amount of daylight at higher latitudes makes it difficult to photosynthesize and thus maintain foliage in the winter. They probably knew that instinctively. Instead, I got right to the key benefit of shedding leaves.
“In America,” I told them, “you get to go dormant in the winter. No one expects anything of you — just sleep all day, like teenagers. Maybe take up a hobby.” That got their attention.
They shook their branches in excitement. What a country!
I was about to say that other countries offer similar opportunities, but didn’t want them getting ideas. We need immigrants like them to settle here, both to increase our tree population and to perform some manual labor — condition the soil, prevent erosion, absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, and provide an agreeable habitat for squirrels and birds. We don’t have a lot of college graduates lining up for those jobs.
Of course, the newcomers had questions about how the leaf-changing process worked, which the local trees couldn’t answer — they just did it naturally. Like asking a person how to make skin cells grow — I don’t even know that, I just do it naturally. But I’ve studied enough botany to explain the leaf thing, and obliged them in that.
The younger ones got it right away, and started showing each other how they could break down their green chlorophyll molecules and reveal their other pigments. A few even managed to turn some leaves completely yellow, to the astonishment and alarm of their parents, who still clung to their dark foliage, nervous about the whole leaf-shedding part of the operation. They’d need a little more time before adopting this strange custom. I sympathized.
Soon enough the youngsters were joining in the festivities, completely enthralled by the Autumn Spirit and easily getting along with their peers.
“I think they’ll do fine here,” you said.
The leaf exchange went on through the day, amid much laughter and kind acceptance. We were showered with leaves and tossed them about, as the spirit of the celebration inspired us. I guess that was our way of fitting in. We didn’t get home until well after dark.
The next morning I looked at the yard, sighed, then got out the rake.