The Falling Leaves
The time of the falling of leaves has come again. Once
more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold
and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds
or the rains out of these delicate textures while we
How beautifully the leaves grow old! How full of light
and color are their last days! There are exceptions,
of course. The leaves of most of the fruit-trees fade
and wither and fall ingloriously. They bequeath their
heritage of color to their fruit. Upon it they lavish
the hues which other trees lavish upon their leaves.
The pear-tree is often an exception. I have seen pear
orchards in October painting a hillside in hues of mingled
bronze and gold. And well may the peartree do this,
it is so chary of color upon its fruit.
But in October what a feast to the eye our woods and
groves present! The whole body of the air seems enriched
by their calm, slow radiance. They are giving back the
light they have been absorbing from the sun all summer.
The carpet of the newly fallen leaves looks so clean
and delicate when it first covers the paths and the
highways that one almost hesitates to walk upon it.
Was it the gallant Raleigh who threw down his cloak
for Queen Elizabeth to walk upon? See what a robe the
maples have thrown down for you and me to walk upon!
How one hesitates to soil it! The summer robes of the
groves and the forests - more than robes, a vital part
of themselves, the myriad living nets with which they
have captured, and through which they have absorbed,
the energy of the solar rays. What a change when the
leaves are gone, and what a change when they come again!
A naked tree may be a dead tree. The dry, inert bark,
the rough, wirelike twigs change but little from summer
to winter. When the leaves come, what a transformation,
what mobility, what sensitiveness, what expression!
Ten thousand delicate veined hands reaching forth and
waving a greeting to the air and light, making a union
and compact with them, like a wedding ceremony. How
young the old trees suddenly become! what suppleness
and grace invest their branches! The leaves are a touch
of immortal youth. As the cambium layer beneath the
bark is the girdle of perennial youth, so the leaves
are the facial expression of the same quality. The leaves
have their day and die, but the last leaf that comes
to the branch is as young as the first. The leaves and
the blossom and the fruit of the tree come and go, yet
they age not; under the magic touch of spring the miracle
is repeated over and over.
The maples perhaps undergo the most complete transformation
of all the forest trees. Their leaves fairly become
luminous, as if they glowed with inward light. In October
a maple-tree before your window lights up your room
like a great lamp. Even on cloudy days its presence
helps to dispel the gloom. The elm, the oak, the beech,
possess in a much less degree that quality of luminosity,
though certain species of oak at times are rich in shades
of red and bronze. The leaves of the trees just named
for the most part turn brown before they fall. The great
leaves or the sycamore assume a rich tan-color like
The spider weaves a net out of her own vitals with which
to capture her prey, but the net is not a part of herself
as the leaf is a part of the tree. The spider repairs
her damaged net, but the tree never repairs its leaves.
It may put forth new leaves, but it never essays to
patch up the old ones. Every tree has such a superabundance
of leaves that a few more or less or a few torn and
bruised ones do not seem to matter. When the leaf surface
is seriously curtailed, as it often is by some insect
pest, or some form of leaf-blight, or by the ravages
of a hail-storm, the growth of the tree and the maturing
of its fruit is seriously checked. To denude a tree
of its foliage three years in succession usually proves
fatal. The vitality of the tree declines year by year
till death ensues.
To me nothing else about a tree is so remarkable as
the extreme delicacy of the mechanism by which it grows
and lives, the fine hairlike rootlets at the bottom
and the microscopical cells of the leaves at the top.
The rootlets absorb the water charge4 with mineral salts
from the soil and the leaves absorb the sunbeams from
the air. So it looks as if the tree were almost made
of matter and spirit, like man; the ether with its vibrations,
on the one · hand, and the earth with its inorganic
compounds, on the other - earth salts and sunlight.
The sturdy oak, the gigantic sequoia, are each equally
finely organized in these parts that take hold upon
nature. We call certain plants gross feeders, and in
a sense they are; but all are delicate feeders in their
mechanism of absorption from the earth and air.
A tree may be no more beautiful and wonderful when we
have come to a knowledge of all its hidden processes,
but it certainly is no less so. We do not think of the
function of the leaves, nor of the bark, nor of the
roots and rootlets, when we gaze upon a noble oak or
an elm; we admire it for its form, its sturdiness, or
its grace; it is akin to our-selves; it is the work
of a vast community of cells like those that build up
our own bodies; it is a fountain of living matter rising
up out of tile earth and splitting up and spreading
out at its top in a spray of leaves and flowers; and
if we could see its hidden processes we should realize
how truly like a fountain it is.
a posthumous essay by
naturalist John Burroughs