Flowers murmur, but leaves speak to me

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In the course of the past few days, two spontaneous gifts have come my way, both of them leaves. First, my son presented me with a red sassafras leaf, jumping off the hay wagon to retrieve it from a hedgerow as we followed the windrow we were baling around the curving end of the field. It was, Tim declared, the first sign of autumn. I fingered it, enjoying its crisp color, despite knowing that its early turning had been partly drought-induced.

Just a couple of days later, Charlie came in from a morning walk to lay a perfectly symmetrical, green and limber tulip poplar leaf on the milk-room counter. I paused in my milking to admire its fresh perfection, its waxy surface still glistening wet from the previous night's brief but much-needed rain.

I have always been attracted to leaves much more than to flowers - the way, as a child, I preferred dungarees to dresses. Flowers grace and beautify with all the colors of the rainbow. Leaves do the plant's primary work, wonderfully at home within their less-rare mantles of green. Perhaps because I typically do my own chores in plain denims and work shirts, when I regard trees and other plants, it is their leaves that speak to me more than their flowers.

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As a young child, I pressed a small collection of maple, oak, elm, and chestnut leaves between sheets of wax paper to earn a Brownie badge. I realized then that I had a thing about leaves. Before pressing, I stroked, studied, and traced them, held them to the light, and laid them against my cheek. Here was something real, basic, and powerful, free for the taking, both mysterious and nonsecretive. I did not know how they worked, but I could see their every vein.

Years later, when I interviewed a local botanist for a magazine article (on leaves, of all things) I learned a fair bit about the biomechanics at work beneath the leaf's surface. The leaf's goal (to blatantly anthropomorphize a plant part) is to make food for the plant with utmost efficiency. Photosynthesis, the leaf's business, converts sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into plant food (glucose), providing oxygen for the planet to boot.

My source explained that he had calculated carbon-dioxide flow through computer- modeled leaves using various configurations of the same cell and tissue layers that make up real leaves. Was it possible, he wondered, to improve on the photosynthetic efficiency of actual, workaday leaves by juggling their biological architecture?

I wouldn't have bet my life on predicting his negative answer, but it came as no shock to either of us. Nature has been at work on leaves for quite a while. Not just a human while, but a geological while, which is a much, much more impressive while. Real leaves have had plenty of time to perfect what they're doing.

This time of year I seem to be especially attentive to leaves, perhaps because in a couple of short months their canopy and company will fall away for another season. Not a long interval, geologically speaking, but we humans begin to miss the leaves at some point over the winter. And so, when one of my guys presents me with a leaf, I accept it as the ephemeral and wonderful gift it is. A sign that all is right with me and with the natural world. A symbol of peace and productivity, of sustenance and health.

Canada is way ahead of the world in honoring this icon of national, indeed global well-being on its flag. If more of us took our cue from up north, and pledged our allegiance to leaves, there just might be fewer wars and fresher air. Having already stretched the point, I'd expect a big advance in botanical science as well.

Will someone's computer model eventually create a better leaf than the ones Tim and Charlie gave to me? Not a chance.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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