(Front page article, St. John‘s Newsletter, October 2010)
In a “Peanuts” cartoon, Snoopy is sitting by a tree, watching leaves fall to the ground. The perpetually crabby Lucy walks up to him and says, “Anyone who would sit and watch leaves fall off a tree must be pretty stupid.” Snoopy watches her walk away, then turns back to the tree, smiling, and the thought balloon over his head reads, “I’m happy.”
So am I. For me, there is a profound theology in the turning and falling of leaves, and I have embraced that theology in every remembered autumn of my life. The leaves of autumn have a look and language like no other, whether they are the bold reds of sumac and red maple, the gentle yellows of the birches, or the quiet tan and brown of the oaks, whose stubbornness in giving up the leaves of spring and summer lets us enjoy autumn foliage well into November.
Turning leaves are insistent about being noticed. It is impossible not to see their brilliance on the trees, but they also insist on our noticing them as they fall. If we fail to notice them wrapping themselves around us in a swirl of wind, they have a way of sending one leaf to sting us lightly on the face as a reminder that we are meant to notice them and all that is around us, and notice our lives as well, as we move slowly but surely toward our own autumns. I know of no other season in which we take such careful stock of ourselves and our own lives.
And what might we notice in this radical turning of seasons? Endings, for one thing: the last harvest, the emptying of the window boxes, the removal of withered tomato vines, and the spading under and mulching of the garden beds in preparation for winter. Or we take a last look — perhaps melancholy — at a dying summer, as we prepare to close up our homes and yards for a winter that we will first welcome, then tolerate, and finally, endure. The turning and falling leaves, despite (or maybe because of!) their brilliance remind us that we are leaving behind something of great beauty as we enter a time which will surely be harsh at some point. What keeps hope alive in those long winter months is the knowledge that the earth will once again bring forth blossoms and pale leaves, which eventually will turn into bright flowers and deep green leaves, and which, as nature orders these things, will explode into brilliance and then die yet again. For the health of our souls, we would do well to notice our closeness to this remarkable cycle.
I believe these three things: that I am never more richly alive than in this season of endings and dying; that I will see and respond to this magnificent cycle as long as I have breath; and that God was never more generous than in giving us this most beautiful earth.
May we, for God’s sake and in God’s name, treat it wiselyand well.