I remember the first time that I saw it happen.
I was about eight, staying home sick with one sort of ailment or another; a fever, a cold, a sore throat. The remedy was always the same: some sort of disgustingly sweet orange syrup that couldn’t hide the metallic taste of the antibiotic. Kept in the refrigerator, its coldness only added to its unpleasantness. My mother hadn’t started to work outside the home yet, but she was out of the house for a short time, probably taking her turn at kindergarten carpooling for my younger sisters.
I loved those brief periods of time left alone in the house. Although we were suppose to stay in bed if we were “too sick” to go to school, I would sneak out as soon as I heard the car wheels spewing the gravel into the street. The house had a quietness that was more than just unusual for a house full of seven kids, two adults, and a lazy dog who would only come to life to bark at the afternoon paperboy. The silence was exciting, mysterious, and a little bit frightening, yet exhilarating.
I remember looking out the window, thinking I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I tried to write a poem about the clouds. It was, as you might imagine, a quite horrible, the sky-is-blue/the clouds-are-white kind of thing.
Then it happened. There was no wind on that Fall day. The large tree in the neighbor’s yard that shaded my parents’ driveway had turned that shade of sunlit yellow that midwestern oaks turn in October, just before the grey days of November. Slowly one leaf drifted down to the ground, trying its best to twirl in the too calm currents of air. If it had had wings, it might have stirred a slight breeze, remaining in the air for a moment longer.
As if it wanted to join its compatriot, a second leaf danced down to the dirt. Then a third. Then leaves four and five, followed by six, fifteen, twenty-three. All the leaves began their dive dances to the ground, cheered on by those already massing on the driveway and the thin strip of grass between the two houses. “Join us” they seemed to chant. The falling leaves began to create their own thermals, joining the sound waves from those who had departed the branches before then.
It was over as suddenly as it began. Only a few lone leaves, the last guards of the outpost who would hang around on branches until pushed down by January snows or March ice, remained.
When my mother returned home, I wanted to show her my poem about the bright sun and the billowing clouds in the blue sky. “That’s nice, honey” she said. “Reading it makes me feel like it is warm outside. Good thing you are indoors.”
“Look at the leaves on the driveway”, she said. “Your brothers will need to get busy raking this weekend.”
“Do you know that poem by Joyce Kilmer? I think that I should never see, a poem as lovely as a tree… Go find the book of poems and look it up. Your grandmother said he was related somehow to your father. And get back in bed!”
I did. It confused me that “Joyce” was a man. I didn’t know if he had seen a Leaf Dance, and I didn’t know if my mother was trying to tell me that I was a fool, or to encourage me. I didn’t care too much for his poem, even then, but I think he was right about the majesty of trees.
Poems are made by fools like me…
My grandmother always claimed lineage to people she admired. I can only guess that was the case with Kilmer. She said he was a good Irishman, but in fact, he wasn’t Irish at all. About the closest my grandmother’s family came to Kilmer, I think, other than perhaps reading his poem anthologized everywhere, was that they lived in Chicago, not too far from the school in Rogers Park named after him. I would guess that if one had challenged my Grandmother on Kilmer’s non-existent Irishness, she would have said, trying to mimic her mother’s Irish brogue, “But he was a good man, with a good sense of humor who loved God. So he’s Irish with me and that’s that!”
I forgot about the tree shedding all of its leaves at once, although I do recall a few times when we had to unbury a car parked there at an inopportune time. I don’t know if anyone else ever saw that tree decloak so quickly, but many years we knew that it was full in the morning, and naked by dusk.
Now, sometimes, during Autumn, when the wind blows and the oaks begin to shed their leaves, I think about that tree, about how glorious it is to see an entire tree emptied within a few minutes, as if the limbs whisper to the leaves “We’re good now. You can go on your way.” Leaf removal in my woods is a continual process between mid-September and mid-November. I spent three hours Monday clearing the driveway; having only scattered leaves on it this morning, it is nearly covered this afternoon. The leaves have been raining down in quick showers since about 10 am, but they are carried by the wind to various places and you cannot tell from which trees they have fallen.
There are many bare trees now, but still many more with leaves yet to fall. I don’t know of any tree in my yard that commands all of its leaves to abandon ship at once, though I think if I listen closely enough, I may hear the command to the ash trees, then a few weeks later to the maples and hickories, to set sail on the wind. Last to leave their airy ports are the oaks, which will embark in stages, for the next few weeks, on their swift journeys to the freezing ground, as the tall masts of the trees go to sleep until Spring and we are left to marvel at the piles of glittering golds, purplish reds and burnt orange leaves ornamenting our walks, drives and neatly manicured lawns.