An autumn tale - the tree, the leaf, and the root

This fall the leaves stayed on the trees longer than usual, then came down in sudden floods of red and orange and gold, released by every gust of wind that passed. The handymen who make their living in late October and early November by cleaning leaves out of gutters were forced to wait and wait, and the rest of us had to wait with them.

Impetuous events occurred everywhere else. American troops precipitously invaded Grenada before the echo of that mad catastrophic explosion in Beirut had faded. History was at its most hot and headlong.

Yet those leaves, for a long time, refused to fall. It was as if nature dissociated itself - not for the first time - from the tempo of human events. All that unrhythmic human haste! All that frenzied interruption of the stately cycle!

Indeed, these autumn trees seemed to balk even at the interpretation human beings usually lay upon them. Ever since Shakespeare wrote of ''the sere, the yellow leaf'' and ''bare ruin'd choirs,'' trees in November have been claimed a little too glibly as metaphors of mortality. Autumn '83 - marked by more body counts than any autumn since the end of the Vietnam war - might have made the dour symbolism appear more tempting than ever. But on the contrary, something about this reluctant defoliation has forced the onlooker to study the phenomenon more carefully - to note, in fact, that there is a special assertion to life being expressed by an autumn tree.

If you take a second look, the stripped branches and that stark trunk say, ''You're a fool to think my life is embodied in anything so ephemeral, so cosmetic, so vulnerable, as a green leaf. Nature is tougher than nature's poets.''

By their very delay, the late-falling leaves this autumn remind us how many crops of leaves are shed over the years while the tree lives on to produce still another green harvest for still another spring.

In the days when we burned leaves, we understood the cycle better. Now we are pollution-conscious about outdoor fires, so we pollute the air instead with the whine of leaf-blowing machines or we stuff the raked piles into black plastic bags. Thus we dispose of the evidence unceremoniously, without benefit of its incense, without a pause to lean on the rake and watch the smoke, and see the tree survive it all.

This autumn, while waiting for the leaves to fall, we brought down a whole tree - a tree that was rotting. A tree that had failed to produce its leaves. A tree that remained sharply outlined against the summer sky while the trees around it blurred into bloom.

The tree was so situated that it could hit at least one of two nearby buildings if it fell the wrong way. A crane with a cherrypicker was employed to manage the delicate job. The three strategists in charge sketched their plans of attack on paper before they started, their hard hats huddled together like the helmets of commanding generals.

The sound of the chain saw ripped the autumn air. Limb by trimmed limb, the tree was gently lowered to the ground. In disassembly, the tree commanded more attention and respect than it ever had, simply standing there.

This was not a remarkably old or imposing specimen - a locust tree, maybe 50 feet tall and 60 years old. Nothing like those 300-foot, 3,000-year-old redwoods in California.

But what a complex structure it seemed in retrospect, now that it existed only as a pile of logs! What a marvelous organism, bracing itself against the wind and the cold and the deposits of snow all those years while patiently thrusting itself upward, this way and that, toward the sun!

When the tree was down - disappeared like a shadow from its old space - there still remained the stump: as clean-grained as if it had been sanded, and eloquent with its chronicle of rings.

After the leaves fell - at last - a few fluttered down to settle in the crevices among the roots. This winter it will be the roots, not the leaves, we shall remember.

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