Alice and the yellow leaves

ON one of those stimulating autumn days that teases you with the notion that had you rushed outside at sunrise you could have glimpsed the wizard who annually refurbishes the sky with a brush dipped in Pacific blue, I stood on the front lawn, hands folded over a rake, contemplating leaves. I do not know how long I stood there, nor how long I was observed, before a young voice said, ``You're not going to rake the yellow ones, are you?''

A little girl with one foot on the curb, the other on a pedal of her bicycle, had asked. I frequently saw her pumping past my house late in the afternoon. I knew she lived around the corner but until that day our acquaintance was limited to smiles and waves. Her name, she said, was Alice.

It was the tallest tree in the yard, dropping its leaves in a bright yellow circle around its trunk, that occasioned our introduction. ``I don't know, Alice. Shouldn't I rake them?''

``I wouldn't,'' she said. The positive tone of this remark suggested she had given the mounding yellow her most serious consideration. ``You know why those leaves are more yellow than the others, don't you?''

Experience has taught me to approach such a question from an eight-year-old with a degree of caution. While I was trying to determine whether I should include in my answer such terms as ``chlorophyll'' or ``photosynthesis'' - or merely concede at the outset, ``No, why?'' - Alice volunteered her theory.

``They've been on the tree all summer, see, and since that is the tallest tree, it soaked up the most sunshine.''

I believe my response was slightly less profound, something like, ``Um... well....'' Perhaps logic of such crystalline purity momentarily stunned me. I do remember stammering, ``So, if I leave them ... leave leaves...?''

Alice, putting hand on hip, regarded me as if unable to comprehend how anyone of my vintage could have progressed so far in life with a mind so dense. ``In winter the sun stays behind the clouds more, so where do you think a tree gets its sunshine?''

``I see! From these leaves! They break down over time, melt away like ice cubes, and their sunshine seeps down to the tree roots?''

Apparently I caught on quickly enough to redeem myself, because Alice laid down her bike and we sat beside the circle of radiance, she to continue my education, I to marvel at the Wonderland of her imagination.

``That's how I figure it must work,'' said Alice. ``I bet if you let the leaves stay, the grass will be greener there next year.'' It was an experiment I could not refuse.

One early evening the following May, Alice wheeled her bike onto my driveway to inquire if I would sponsor her, at a nickel a lap, in her swim team's charity meet. As I signed my pledge I said, ``Have you noticed? The grass where we left the sunshine piled up is not only greener, the blades are a half-inch taller than anywhere else in the lawn.'' Alice was too polite to mention she told me so.

I saw Alice in June when she came to collect for her stellar performance at the swim meet, but not again for three months. I was setting out chrysanthemums in a flower bed. A breeze persuaded the tall tree to sprinkle me with the first drops of what would become this year's shower of sunshine. It seemed to blow Alice along from nowhere, atop a pair of all-terrain roller skates. She regarded me from curbside, unaccountably shy, looking somewhat older and wiser and sadly embarrassed when I asked about her summer.

Finally, she blurted, ``Guess you think I'm really dumb.'' Her tone, suggesting a recent upheaval in self-confidence, signaled that the time had come to forget chrysanthemums and amble curbside for a heart-to-heart chat. Alice's newfound uncertainty derived in part from her experience at a summer camp, where she ``majored in science.''

``Miss La Berra helped me with my project. She teaches botany, and she said I was wrong about your tree and the grass. It isn't sunshine. It's only a natural cycle. The tree takes food out of the ground and puts it in the leaves, somehow, then the leaves get full and turn yellow and fall off and rot and feed new leaves next year. Composting is what you're supposed to call it. Someone old as you probably knew all along, didn't you? I sure was wrong.''

``Alice,'' I confessed, ``I knew. But you know something else? In a way, you are as right as Miss Botanist.''

After Alice skated homeward, I did something really dumb for someone as old as I, something really wonderful ... sprawled on my back in the grass and gazed up at the tall tree.

Had Alice understood what I said about the possibility of there being a single truth, expressed differently through the visions of poets and scientists? Through the years, as she looks at things from the myriad perspectives awaiting her discovery, will she remember this yard, this tree, and me with embarrassment?

I prefer to think that one fine autumn day when Alice finds herself in my state of advancing antiquity, an eight-year-old will pop up from nowhere, enabling her to rekindle the wonderment of childhood, to forget what neighbors might think, to sprawl in her front lawn and study a drop of sunshine twirling, spiraling, fluttering toward her like an unexpected blessing from a sky of ocean blue.

As that sparkle of remembrance descends, brushes past upraised hand, I know she, too, will be startled by joy as she discovers that one never grows too old, too informed, to reach out and be touched by the marvel of life renewing itself.

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