Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Giant sequoia, Sequoia National Park

When I was a little kid, probably about nine, my father, one day, brought out a leaf collection he had made when he was about my age, about nine. I saw it only once, that one time, but I never forgot it. It was beautiful, a whole album filled with leaves neatly mounted on heavy, yellowing pages, each carefully labeled in my father’s looping, flawless handwriting (perfect, apparently, even when he was a child).

The leaves were North Carolina leaves (my father was from Winston-Salem). There were lots of lobed, fancy ones, the kind you saw in storybooks but not where we lived, not in a suburb in Florida.

I was sick with admiration for the leaf collection. I asked my father how he had even found so many leaves (our own neighborhood was new and bare), and he said it was easy, that he had just picked them up, that fancy leaves fell like snow, like manna, all over the neighborhoods in Winston-Salem, and lay in lush, tempting drifts on the sidewalks, just waiting for children to collect the best ones.

That was the impression I got, at least. You see, when my father talked about North Carolina, he spoke so fondly and with such nostalgia that it seemed like the greatest place in the world, like paradise. It seemed so much better than Florida, where we had no extended family and no family history, where we had no leaves to watch turn red and gold in fall.

The leaves in Dad's collection were labeled, like I said, and I was so impressed by that, by my father’s boyhood knowledge of his surroundings, of his close connection to the place where he lived.

“How did you know the names of the trees, Daddy?” I asked, dizzy with wonder and reverence and envy. “How did you find out?”

He said he wasn’t sure, that he guessed he “just knew.”

The day Dad showed me his leaf collection, I tried to start my own. It was a pretty frustrating project because our young neighborhood consisted mostly of open, grassy lawns, a fact that made interesting leaves quite difficult to come by. Even worse, when I did find a good leaf, I didn’t know its name or how on earth I could ever discover it. I remember my little collection, my little bouquet of three or four leaves, and how quickly I gave up on it.

I think because both my parents were from far away and were often (I’m guessing) homesick, I grew up with a strange sense of displacement. For a long time I thought we’d “move back” to Winston-Salem, end our self-imposed exile. But we didn’t . . .

And gradually I came to understand that I didn’t need to move away in order to find a home, that I could make my home right where I was. I figured out that I could read books and learn the names of the trees, that I could plant trees where there had been none, and, most important, that I could make the commitment to stay and nurture those trees and watch them grow.

General Grant Tree, Sequoia National Park

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