One Leaf and I

My attraction to fallen leaves continues, and now, in addition to swaths of leaves in artistic formations, I’m once again noticing individual leaves, but in a different way than before. When I used to focus on single leaves, I appreciated the forms and shapes they had assumed after falling, as well as the shadings they had developed as they dried. Now, however, I find myself gazing at a single leaf until I perceive in it much more than its original “leafness.”

Of course, I still notice the poses of the leaves as they lie on the sidewalk in front of me, their grace, the arch of their stems, the ballet of their positions. I also see the brilliance of their yellows and oranges, as well as the depth of their browns and tans. But now I perceive so much more.

This began when I focused on a leaf that, while balletic and graceful, exhibited none of the usual dried-leaf range of colors and hues. This leaf was principally shades of brown and gray, a much more somber rendition of your usual Berkeley dried leaf. But the range of brownish and greyish shades and their formations caught my eye. Because the differences were subtle, the leaf coaxed me into a deeper gaze than usual, so deep that I eventually forgot about its leafness, and instead found myself in a vast land of dirt and rock, with a beauty distinct from anything I had ever seen before. The only hint of color was the pale yellowish-orange outline of the vertical vein, which looked like a road running straight through this unknown territory. On either side stretched a mottled brownish landscape, interrupted now and then by mounds of grey rock.

I gazed at this leaf for quite a while, and when I finally looked up, I felt as if I had been on a journey to an exotic land. I was at first surprised that gazing at a leaf had taken me so far, but then understood that looking deeply at something, a leaf, a stone, a walnut, changes your relationship with the object you are gazing at. When you first look, you do so from a distance, so that you and whatever you are gazing at are distinct and separate. But as you continue to gaze, the distance diminishes and you begin to form a new relationship with the object. After a while, all distance disappears and you enter the object you’ve been observing, transforming it from what it was initially into a hybrid of the two of you.

For me, the leaf was originally a leaf, a particularly interesting one, but still a leaf. But the longer I stood looking at it as it lay in my hand, the more this distance was erased, until I had the experience of entering the landscape of its surface. That’s why when I finally looked up, I felt so disoriented, that it took me a moment to settle back into my familiar self.

This, I think, is the ultimate experience of seeing small. It’s not one we have time for very often in our busy lives, but it’s profound. And incredibly beneficial. Entering the landscape of my leaf I felt less separate and more a part of everything that surrounds me. I am never alone, I realized. And during the Covid pandemic, that’s an especially exquisite feeling.

French Wall

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