The length of time a leaf adheres to its tree is important to the leaf miners, which are any of a number of insect larvae that live in the thin layer of cells sandwiched between the opposing outer surfaces of leaves. To survive, they must time their life cycles to coincide with those of the leaves in which they dwell.
A leaf miner hollows out its path from egg to adult as it eats its way through the interior of a leaf. The hollowness of the tunnel grows in a width commensurate with the growth of the larva. But a leaf whose internal structure has been weakened by a miner cannot, I have learned, produce the quality of sound needed to be a musical instrument. To be true in melody, a leaf must be structurally sound and carefully chosen.
In May 1967, while taking a rest on the climb to my field camp at the 11,500-foot level on the mountain known as Phulung Ghyang, in Newakot District of Nepal, I watched one of my Tamang porters, a woman, search a small tree with oval leaves three to four inches long, examining leaf after leaf. Finally, with a look of absolute serenity, she selected one. Walking to a medium-sized boulder along the edge of the trail overlooking the vast emptiness of space as it plunged thousands of feet into the valley below, she climbed upon the rock and faced outward into the void.
Lang Tang Peak, 23,771 feet high, from 11,000 feet (top). Trisuli Valley from 11,000 feet (bottom).
Holding the leaf horizontally with one hand on each side of her mouth, she blew on its edge, and there came forth the most exquisite melody I have ever heard in my life. The liquid notes of a winter wren or a meadowlark are no match for the mystical quality of the music I heard that day so long ago.
In that instant, the woman and the leaf became one, and from their union was born the most intricate, the most delicate praise of life I have ever experienced, or probably ever will experience in my earthly pilgrimage. The soul of all humanity, from its earliest dawning, was called forth to rejoice in the perfection of woman, leaf, music, and the Eternal Mystery that created them all.
From that day into forever, a tree’s leaf will for me always be a symbol of the human spirit, the spirit of woman praising life with music.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser, 2000. All rights reserved.