I do this every fall now. I did it years before I started leading writing groups that required prompts. I’d go out in the neighborhood—sometimes even stopping by the side of the road if I saw lovely specimens—and load up a plastic bag with leaves fresh off trees—delicate, fan-shaped gingkos, star-shaped maples, serrated ones that look like blood-letters… anything in the process of migrating from light green to dusty yellow to red-bronze. I’d pick up spiky seed pods and snip red berries off pyracantha. I’d disdain the crunchy ones that every year fall from my gibogus sycamore in the back yard because they’re not pretty. One day they’re green, the next they’re a whiny yellow, and then—whump!—they’re toast on the ground. Mulch, as Margaret observed today in the writing group.
She mentioned this after I’d spread out a small collection of leaves and pods and berries on a blue tarp on a table in the middle of the room. My prompt today was “fall,” which seems highly unoriginal, given the obviousness of the season. But it’s a season long in coming. We’ve had the most glorious Indian summer that’s lasted, with a few chilly days here and there, into November. It was in the mid-70s at the beginning of last week. This is rare for Sacramento. Yesterday it started raining—serious, cold, freakin’ winter rain. I put what I considered a writerly spin on the prompt: Write about fall, the autumnal season, I said, or “fall” as a verb, or the concept of falling.
Margaret, who is new to the writing group, teased me. “You brought your mulch?”
“Yep,” I said. “Carefully chosen mulch. Maple leaves the size of saucers. Spent seed pods like blasted open stars. Halves of walnut shells the squirrels left behind. Gingkos from my neighbor’s gorgeous tree down the block.”
Every year, right before Thanksgiving, that gingko busts a gut, bursting into yellow and tossing off its little fans. I walked down there yesterday to retrieve some of those leaves and noticed a light in the window. To my embarrassment, I don’t know this neighbor—though I have seen an older man working in that narrow front yard, raking those leaves.
I should leave him a note one day, I thought, thanking him.
For twenty-three years now, I have watched your lovely gingko tree leaf greenly every spring, weather our hot Sacramento summers, and shudder itself into its bright yellow sweater come fall. I love this time of year when your gingko sends its sunny little fans floating to meet the crewcut grass below it.
For twenty-three falls, I have stopped by to pick up a couple dozen of the discarded fans. Yesterday, they were spotty with the day’s raindrops, every one of them washed clean. I put them in a plastic bag and took them home. Sometimes I place them in glass bowls to shine some of the last of the year’s color before winter sets in. Or I take them to school, spread them on a blue tarp in a classroom and invite writing students to pick them up, along with other treasures of fall… bronze-y maple leaves, spent, spiky seed pods, red pyracantha berries.
My students love the objects of fall. They write beautifully about them.
This is just to say thank you. Perhaps you were the person who planted this tree long ago, who dug the hole and set the little sapling to its life task. Certainly you tend and nurture it now.
This is just to offer my gratitude for the gingko’s annual gift—always at Thanksgiving—of thousands of sunshine-y fans that always make me smile.
With deep thanks—