Nobody knows when a leaf turns. It’s that – there! – but not yet…

And then it is.

Beyond the window, the autumned cottonwood is no eternal constancy, nor coquettish nude.  Despite having an entire season, that tree seems to burst and fade in fits and spurts until it undresses, fully, entirely – and always, unexpectedly. For all the days I stare at its foliage, I am inevitably surprised when Fall is fallen. Regardless the intensity of my gaze, I never predict when a leaf will brown, or fireworks will litter the streets. Verdancy first yellows, then cedes to sienna, umber, and dust. Sometimes, I think it a leaf turns color once, gradually, over a long period; other times, I believe a leaf turns once, immediately, in no time at all. It happens without my knowing, or only upon my sight.

When autumn strikes a familiar tone, limbs and boughs transform with alternating eagerness and reluctancy. These are not mere objects; theirs is a life complicated by innumerable circumstances. Recalcitrant aspen seemingly impede winter. Maple prefer brevity, and hasten oncoming snows. Color changes like faith: it peaks according to whims of individual senses. I don’t know when a leaf begins or finishes turning any more than I know how many licks are needed to finish a lollipop.

Logically, my view could be incomplete, inconsistent, or irrelevant. To find a leaf has turned, we must be simultaneously artificial and oblivious. At its core, leaf peeping recognizes a symbol of a season (without changing colors, autumn is less an experience than a three-month appointment). However, this leads us to conflate a symbol with a process: going red, then dead, symptomizes seasonal change, itself a phenomenon of Earth’s rotation and solar location. This process is infinitely complex – beyond comprehension. Understanding the overwhelmingly small part of a leaf on life’s greater stage also recognizes the inadequacy of human senses. Whether a leaf changes gradually or instantaneously is, again, simply a small recognition of immense changes that are not humanly apparent.

Therefore, a leaf turns once, but in many subtle ways. How we understand its changing unconceals more about ourselves then it does nature.

A leaf turns once, but every glance returns our gaze anew.

[Photo: “Upper Steven’s Creek”, Reeva Harrison,]

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