In March 2020, I wrote a piece titled I Am a Leaf that appeared on this website. In it, I shared personal reflections and “leaf portrait” photographs that were inspired by the receipt of potentially life-threatening health news.
Since then, I’ve been thinking more deeply about leaves — what these simple gifts of nature can teach us, and how they can help us overcome the challenges we face in life. Over the past year, I jotted down thoughts in a vintage leather-covered notebook that I keep on my desk. And in the spirit of this deeper exploration, I used a macro lens on my camera to reveal a closer look at the wondrous structure of leaves.
Here are seven things I’m grateful for having observed. (Please note: I was observing the leaves of deciduous trees in a temperate climate. If you live in a different climate zone, you may have a different experience — and your leaves may inspire additional insights for you.)
1. Leaves feel stress, just like we do.
Anyone who lived through the pandemic and chaos of the past year knows what stress feels like. As if they were sharing our collective pain, the leaves where I live in Charlotte, NC had a dismal year in 2020.
Back in 2019, when I was collecting leaves for the original I Am a Leaf photographs, the trees were covered with dazzling fall foliage. But in the fall of 2020, when I was looking for new leaves to photograph, I saw a depressing collection of shriveled brown and black leaves that had dropped early or were barely clinging to life on the tree. The few colorful leaves I managed to find needed to be taken home and photographed almost immediately, before they too wilted and darkened.
The technical term for this phenomenon, I’ve learned, is “leaf scorch.” It occurs when leaves are traumatized by lack of water, overexposure to hot sun or other harsh conditions. When I reflect on this, I gain a deeper appreciation for what Buddhists call The First Noble Truth: Suffering is an intrinsic part of life. If we look clearly, we see that everyone and everything around us — yes, even a leaf on a tree — suffers in some way. This is why everyone and everything we encounter deserves compassion.
2. Leaves are flexible and resilient.
Although leaves are relatively fragile and are easily bent or torn, their flexibility helps them endure. When strong winds whip the tree, leaves hang on by going with the flow. Like a Tai Chi master, a leaf gains its advantage by yielding to force rather than resisting it.
Did you know that leaves will actually adjust their configurations in high winds to reduce surface exposure and minimize potential damage? In some trees, the leaves curl into a tightening cone to minimize wind drag. In another species, the leaves swing inward and lie flat against the branch.
Imagine how much easier our lives would be if we could respond to challenges so fluidly and flexibly.
3. Leaves know what’s good for them.
Unfortunately, we humans easily gravitate toward things in life that are harmful to us. We often surround ourselves with people who are negative influences, and we chase things that bring immediate gratification but are destructive to body, mind and spirit.
Leaves know better. They require energy from sunlight in order to produce food. So that’s where they orient themselves: toward sunlight. Through the process of phototropism, the cells on the shady side of leaves and stems grow faster, triggering a deliberate asymmetrical growth. This allows plants to bend naturally toward sunlight like a monk bowing before an altar.
By listening to our deeper instincts, we can follow the leaf’s example more consistently and effortlessly — bending toward the light, being drawn to things that nourish us.
4. Leaves are constantly changing.
If we maintain any illusion that things in life are solid, fixed and permanent – whether it’s a career, physical possessions or the bodies we live in — a leaf on a tree will show us otherwise. Throughout its life cycle, a leaf is in a state of perpetual change: growing in size, often evolving in shape and finally going out in a dazzling blaze of colors before it dies.
It’s the same leaf from beginning to end … and yet it’s never quite the same.
Consider this fact: when a leaf changes colors in the fall, those reds, yellows and other vivid hues were actually inside the leaf all along. The green color we observed during spring and summer is caused by chlorophyll, which is the dominant pigment in the leaf. When fall arrives, the chlorophyl breaks down and the other color-creating pigments have an opportunity to reveal themselves.
The message we can take away from this is profoundly inspiring: All of the raw material we need for positive growth and change is, and always has been, right within us. Our challenge in life is to find a way to bring these qualities to the forefront.
5. Leaves know how to work together.
On the one hand, leaves are highly individualistic. Each one is unique, and each one has an instinct for its survival embedded at a cellular level. At the same time, leaves understand that their survival and wellbeing are deeply connected to the survival and wellbeing of the entire tree. If the tree thrives, the leaves can flourish. If the tree gets sick and dies, every leaf perishes with it. That’s why leaves work to convert sunlight into food, not just for their own private domain at the end of a stem but for the whole tree.
It seems to me that we humans have a lot to learn in this regard.
6. Leaves are humble.
In the ancient Chinese text Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote “Humility is the root from which greatness springs.” This same point was emphasized by Christ when he taught “He who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In their own quiet way, leaves show us what it means to lower ourselves, to abandon our elevated egos, to accept a drop in status so we might achieve something higher and more noble. From their lofty branches where they look down upon the trunk and roots, leaves fall to the ground and are trampled underfoot. By lowering itself, a leaf becomes mulch. The decomposing mulch in turn enriches the soil and helps the tree grow stronger and taller.
As promised, greatness springs from the root of humility.
7. Leaves know when it’s time to go.
Whether we’re ending a relationship or departing from this world, saying goodbye is one of the most painful transitions we face. For a leaf, there’s a brilliant mechanism that tells it when it’s time to let go.
If you slice open a leaf’s stem and observe it under a microscope, you’ll see a tiny dome-shaped structure called the meristem. This little miracle of life functions as a production control center, telling the tree when it’s time to grow … and when it’s time to stop. Before the onset of winter, specialized cells will cut the leaves off from the tree, causing them to fall. And then a marvelous thing happens. A small bud is formed on the tree where the leaf used to be, covered with scales to protect itself from the cold. Like the moon in a dewdrop, all of the leaves and flowers for the next spring’s growth are contained in that little bud.
The relevance for us: When it’s time for a transition, our pain would be greatly diminished if we could let go of our clinging, thus preparing the way for new life and renewal. This is why Rumi advised us to “Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop.”
These are the seven lessons I’ve learned from leaves in this past year — and I’m hopeful that the lessons will continue. I’m grateful to each leaf for the wisdom it’s shared, and grateful for the intricate beauty that shows the universe at play in every single cell.
The health issue that I wrote about in I Am a Leaf last year remains a mystery — but the general prognosis continues to be encouraging. While my blood cell counts are still low (meaning I have to be more vigilant about infections and cautious about COVID), several factors have further convinced the doctors that cancer is not the cause. They suspect an autoimmune issue is causing the deficiency, which is a situation that is more favorable and manageable than the life-threatening blood cancers that were originally being considered. For this increasingly renewed sense of optimism, my gratitude is boundless.
Editor’s note: In November 2023, Paul shared the following update — “This summer a new round of tests finally delivered a conclusive diagnosis: I have Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a rare form of blood cancer. Fortunately, the spiritual strength I wrote about in I Am a Leaf is still going strong and I feel surprisingly calm.” Read the full essay, The Love of Leaves, on his blog here.