Here I was in the front yard of the house at near-dark, plucking leaves from low-hanging branches and shoving them by the fistful into a canvas tote to bring inside
Here I was in the front yard of the house at near-dark, plucking leaves from low-hanging branches and shoving them by the fistful into a canvas tote to bring inside and dump out across the dining room table. Don’t wait ’til the last minute to start this project, the teacher had admonished, and yet that’s exactly what I’d done, putting off my seventh-grade science assignment, a leaf identification project, until, well, now, a few days before it was due.
We were required to collect leaves from a dozen or so trees around Randolph County over the course of a month and mount them in a three-ring binder. Identify each leaf by its common name, scientific name, whether it came from a deciduous or a coniferous tree, and give a description of each.
Thanks to my procrastination, I can’t imagine I got a very good grade on the project, and although it’s been almost 40 years, I regret not putting in more time and effort and thought. If I could go back and gather again, what would I collect from the ground, from the branches? What would I put in that three-ring binder?
For the first page, I’d surely clip the glossy-green leaves from the massive magnolia tree, Magnolia grandiflora, that stood up the hill from my grandmother’s house. In the heat of summer, she and I walked up to the tree so that she could snip a few stems for a vase. It wasn’t even our tree — it belonged to the City of Asheboro and was technically on the grounds of the county courthouse — but in the ’60s, she worked in the register of deeds department there, and she still knew folks who assured her with a wink that it’d be just fine if she pruned up that tree a little. To this day, I can’t walk past a magnolia without pressing my nose to the blossoms, an instant olfactory transport to my grandmother’s house, so filled with ambrosial sweetness.
I’d certainly seek out the pointed leaves of the eastern black walnut, Juglans nigra, that was spread out all over the property at my great-uncle’s farm in Ramseur, where we gathered for family reunions, a rare chance to visit with cousins who tromped with me beneath those trees, entertaining ourselves by trying to crush, flatten, or somehow pulverize the impenetrable husks of those nuts.
I’d look for the curved leaves of the pecan tree, Carya illinoinensis, a reminder of the countless pies I’ve eaten, the nuts scooped from backyards and delivered in baskets by good neighbors.
And I’d definitely search for oaks. Not the willow oaks or pin oaks or red oaks, but the kind that filled my parents’ property, the white oaks, Quercus alba, their roots buried deep in the clay soil, their leaves in autumn burnished to shades of brown and maroon.
Oh, there were so many acorns! A substratum of woody shells underfoot, beneath the layer of leaves that my parents spent hours raking, heaping on a tarp, dragging to the ditches. I remember the smell of those smoldering leaves, early evening trails of smoke wafting from the piles set aflame. For some, autumn is the smell of pumpkin spice; for me, it’s leaf smoke, all musk and incense, a burnt offering to a new season, a blessing for the gifts of the earth, for all generations.
Editor in Chief