Posted by: chrismaser | December 10, 2009


Leaves come in limitless sizes and shapes, no two of them ever exactly alike. They have many functions, be they the broad leaves of a maple, the needles of a noble fir, or the small leaves and long thorns of a desert acacia. They are, for example, amazingly compact energy converters, which use chlorophyll to harness the sun’s energy, to convert carbon dioxide, water, and elemental nutrients from the soil into simple sugars that are in one form or another distributed throughout and among ecosystems, where they are a critical part of the world’s food web.

Leaves also transpire water, creating a humid microclimate around their individual surfaces within a tree’s crown and within a forest. As they filter the sun’s light passing through their bodies, the leaf community of a tree’s top creates an ever-moving dapple of lights and shadows on the forest floor in response to the sun’s daily passage across the heavens.

A forest spider can find shade from the sun and a roof from the rain under a single leaf. Although considerably larger than a spider, some tropical bats chew partway through certain leaves, causing them to fold over and create an instant shelter in which the bats pass the daylight hours sleeping.

As far as we humans are concerned, however, it takes the combined shadows of many leaves to cast one large enough to protect us from the sun’s heat and ultraviolet rays. But in the distant Congo where the Pygmies live, there are leaves large enough for these small forest folk to thatch their simple huts with roofs of green.

And leaves create beauty not only in form and function as they grow and mature in spring and summer but also in color as they change hue with their dying in autumn. For it is autumn’s warm days and crisp, clear nights that begin calling the leaves back to earth to share the atoms they have so briefly borrowed from the atomic interchange of the ages. As autumn matures and the winds blow colder and harder, the dying leaves break loose their bonds to bump and bounce and float to earth. Others, clinging stubbornly to dormant twigs, rustle in the teasing wind. Each passing day sees more leaves collect beneath trees, forming a brittle, crunchy blanket over the ground.

It is in autumn that I get out my rake and begin collecting the falling leaves of the pear and apple trees in my garden and of the maples just outside the fence. No matter how often I rake under the trees, each warm, blustery, southwesterly wind off the Pacific Ocean and each cold, north wind from the Alaskan and Canadian arctic sends more leaves scurrying across the ground I have just cleared. Be that as it may, each time I rake the leaves into piles, I am reminded of my youth.


Autumn was the time in my youth when the fallen leaves of oak and maple were raked by hand into long rows on the golf course next to where I lived. The rows of leaves were collected into a trailer pulled behind an old Ford tractor and taken to the traditional burning area, which just happened to be near my house. And it was here in the autumns of the past that I discovered the pure joy of jumping into mammoth piles of leaves and of throwing them into the air and having them rain down around me. As Indian summer drew to a close, however, my leaf-jumping season ended, for this was the time when the leaf mountains were lighted to smolder for days with tiny red, orange, and yellow flames writhing hither and yon in a tortured dance amidst the billowing greenish-gray smoke until all that remained were great piles of ashes.

And then comes winter, the season of leafless trees and bare-limbed shrubs, of withered bygone flowers and dead grasses. It is a time for hibernating, for being snug and sleepy in a cozy nest as wind-driven rain and sleet and snow buffet the outside world. What about the leaves of spring and summer? Where are they?

Have you ever looked closely at a leaf bud on a tree in winter? Inside the frozen bud is a miniature leaf just waiting for spring to release it from bondage to begin again the dance of leaves exemplified by the trembling ballet of quaking aspen as they rustle softly in summer’s breezes.

Unlike the leaves of maple and oak, of beech and ash, the needles of coniferous trees do not dance in the breezes, for they tend to be narrow and stiff, designed with the rigidity of soldiers clinging to limb and twig in orderly file. Although they do not dance, they sing. And to me, the greatest love song of all time is the wind playing its melody through the orchestra of needles high in the crowns of ponderosa pine. Although the needles of coast redwood trees do not sing like those of pine, they collect precious water.


The great redwood forest of northwestern California would not exist if not for the coastal fogs. Most of the redwoods’ summer moisture is gleaned from fog flowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, where it collects on needle after needle. Here it forms into crystalline mounds that converge into fluid pendants that drip with the persistence of Chinese water torture from lofty crowns to saturate the forest floor, where salamanders depend on it for the breath of life because they absorb oxygen through their skin and must therefore remain moist or they suffocate. Beyond the salamanders, deeper in the soil, wait the thirsty roots of the giant trees that for millennia have gathered their own drinking water along the edge of the sea.

To the north, in western Oregon, lives the small red tree vole, mentioned earlier, a mouse-like denizen of the stately Douglas-firs. Building its nest anywhere from six to 150 feet above the ground, it depends for life on the needles of Douglas-fir and along the coast on western hemlock and Sitka spruce. In addition to eating the needles, however, these little tree-dwelling mammals lick the dew off of them and thus quench their thirst. Their ability to use this source of water allows them to extend their geographical distribution eastward into the hot interior of the land along major rivers, which create their own fog that in turn envelops the Douglas-firs growing along their banks to the benefit of these small voles.

Halfway around the world, in the deserts of Egypt, grow acacia trees whose tiny leaves and rapier-like thorns conserve precious moisture as they endure the scorching heat of a relentless sun, the hot breath of desert winds, and the choking clutch of howling sand storms. Yet even here, the leaves must produce the essential sugars from the sun’s harvested light if they are to live.

Here, too, lives the shrike or “butcherbird.” The butcherbird is so called for its habit of fastening extra food securely to the acacia’s thorns by impaling its prey thereon for another day’s feast. Thus a thorn, which on some plants is an anatomically modified leaf in Nature’s scheme of things, not only conserves moisture and protects its bearer from being eaten by most large herbivores but also serves as a pantry for so deft a hunter as the shrike.

I also remember finding a mummified hawk in the top of a date palm at Kurkur Oasis in the desert west of Aswan, Egypt, on Christmas Day in 1963. On retrieving the bird, which was in a diving position or “stoop,” I discovered that it had pierced itself to death on the single blade of one of the palm’s fronds and became an instant mystery riveted in time and space.

Clearly, it had been in its eternal dive a long time for its feathers of brown were severely faded. But how long? What had the hawk been so intent on capturing that in its singular focus it had run itself entirely through?

The irony is that the palm frond, which may have shaded the hawk one day from the sun’s searing heat and glaring reflection off the desert sand, had the next taken its life. How long would the hawk have remained skewered, bleaching in the sun, had I not happened on the scene to bear witness to one of life’s many unexpected twists?

Unlike deciduous trees, which lose their leaves seasonally and stand in naked slumber for part of each year, such conifers as Douglas-fir and western hemlock shed about a third of their needles annually. As the needles die and turn yellowish, they loosen from their moorings and spin quietly to the forest floor or ride the gusty winds to their final resting place. There, they serve as food for a host of organisms and thus through many circuitous routes are eventually incorporated into the forest soil only to rise again in some future microbe, flower, mouse, or tree, each of which in turn completes its cycle and passes on the atoms it borrowed from needle and leaf.

Thus, while a deciduous tree or forest annually produces two entirely different habitats, one in full leaf and another following leaf fall, a coniferous tree or forest produces a continuous habitat of relatively similar characteristics throughout the year. In addition, broad leaves decompose rapidly and pass into the soil within a year, which makes them ideal mulch and compost for my garden, whereas coniferous needles may take a decade or more to break down and recycle through the system.

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.

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, perhaps in a way similar to the emblem of the maple leaf on the Canadian flag that represents Canada’s national spirit.

However one looks at leaves, they are a graphic symbol of life’s cycle, from their emergence in spring, through their maturation in summer, to their decline and death in autumn, and their apparent absence in winter. But the leaves of trees are more than that. They are also a barometer of the harmony with which human society coexists within its environment, for they simultaneously produce the oxygen we breathe and monitor our trusteeship of the world’s air, soil, and water, which affect the tree’s flowers and fruits in my garden as well as in the forests of the world.


Related Posts:

• Trees: The Quintessential Plant

• Trees In Time And Space

• Flowers And Fruits

• Branches

• Trunk

• Roots

• The only true investment is energy from sunlight.

• A Woman’s Melody

Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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