A feeling for fall

By

A few years ago in an autumn-nipped park in Seattle called the Arboretum, a vast and portentous place, I had a wonderfully leafy time.

It was a fine, windy afternoon. The trees looked like great swollen sails, red and brown and green and yellow. All along their branches the leaves reeled and spun, as if quite dizzy from the shocking news the wind was bringing them. And when they fell they took forever coming to the ground, like a rain of tiny, lost stars.

There, human tidiness took over. Throughout the Arboretum, workers were going with long rakes to sweep up the fallen leaves into great colorful heaps. With faces neither happy nor sad, but just leaf-weary, they swept. I wondered if they felt like shepherds, shepherds of leaves, and if they wished that they had, if not sheepdogs, at least leaf-dogs, to help them bring in the strays.

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Sometimes I would pause near an especially big heap of leaves that a worker was burning. In the red glare of the fire we would both tilt our noses way back, sniffing the bittersweet fragrance, musing on the turn of our own days. ''A difficult job,'' I said to one worker. ''But today's Friday!'' he countered.

Later in the day, when the wind started to blow even harder, I turned up my collar and headed home. But on the way I was struck by an almost mystical sight, a tree with only one leaf left. Big as one of my hands, it just cleaved there, unbudging.

''What's the matter with you, leaf?'' I asked it. ''Don't you know it's not good manners to linger when the season says you should go?''

For an answer, the leaf shuddered in the wind.

''Oh, I see,'' I said. ''You're afraid.''

''I'd like to save you,'' I said. ''But I can't. There's only one thing I can do for you, and that's to help you fall. All right?''

More shudders.

Taking out my handkerchief, I poked some holes around the edges with my pencil. Then I picked some especially long and sturdy blades of grass, tied one end of them to the holes, and climbed on a branch. I tied the other end of the blades to the stem of the reluctant leaf.

Admittedly, what I'd produced was only a makeshift parachute. But still, it was better than nothing.

For what felt like a whole autumn, in a wind that threatened to grow from a ripper of leaves to a ripper of hair, I sat under that tree, waiting for the last leaf to fall. I was, after all, only a leaf myself, a human leaf. And I, too, had a parachute, the one God made for me when he tied His love to me. How could I not keep vigil with my fellow up there?

Down went the sun, and the sky grew dark with great clouds that stumbled over one another into the night. Finally, near midnight, the leaf fell. After many wild, upside-down swoops sideways, it came fluttering down almost cockily, its parachute billowing out above it.

As it fell, I couldn't tell if it was the last of summer's fliers or the first of next spring's spies. And in my joy to be a witness to the ambiguous event, I didn't really much care.

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