In the end, what ties everything together is how predictably it falls apart.
Like everyone, I must have seen heaps of leaves all my life, but I never really noticed the part where they fall to the earth. When you watch a tree drop its leaves, it will change you. It will alter your ambition and interrupt your agenda. There’s nothing like the sight of falling leaves to give you a glimpse of reality, especially if it’s in your own backyard.
It was my forty-first birthday. I was looking out the garden window in our guest room, also called our office, but which would be lost to either use when a baby took up residence a year later. I was alone, in the middle of the day, amid September’s melancholy stillness, with nothing to do except give undue consideration to the sad landscape of my recent loss. Three months earlier I’d left my job, planted my savings into this decrepit house, sacrificed my slim claim to fame and greatness and brought myself down to earth. And for what? I was no clearer on the why. Then it began to rain, more like the suggestion of rain, a translucent veil that fell like lace from the crown of the sky. Did this even qualify as rain? I had to wonder, being a transplant from the land of whipcracking cloudbursts and tornado warnings with sudden raging floods that crested two feet higher than your front door. That was rain.
I remember this event not because of the birthday, one of many that would come after the year I stopped counting, but because of the delicate mists that carried the first leaves down from the sycamores, leaves still partly green and as wide across as my two hands. What a show—the water, the light, and the leaves gliding into a soft landing of letting go.
I was forty-one years old before I ever saw a tree lose its leaves. After that, everything I saw was a falling leaf. Everything came down.
This is partly because of the sycamores that tower over the western edge of the garden. There are three of them. There used to be more. The earliest photos of this place depict a shady glade dotted with young sycamores. At some point, a more moderate sense of proportion prevailed, and all but the three survivors were removed.
Sycamores shed everything. A hundred feet tall with a seventy-foot spread, our sycamores drop leaves all through fall and early winter and again in spring—the result of a non-lethal fungus that afflicts the first leaves of the year. They drop seed pods and bark. None of these losses limit the trees’ terrific growth or lifespan. Sycamores generate perpetual work and worry for the groundskeepers beneath, and so I’m afraid they are not much loved. Ours are disfigured by disdain. Halfway up their height, the trunks take a ninety-degree turn and extend ten feet horizontally before resuming their upward thrust. A tree-trimmer told me this misshape was the result of topping-off. Fifty years ago, someone got fed up and lopped off the leafy heads of these old girls. Wouldn’t this have killed them? The tree guy laughed. Apparently it’s impossible to kill a California sycamore no matter how hard you try. Eventually you let go and just live with them. What a useful thing to do: let go.
I came to the garden just in time to enter the age of undoing. Surprisingly, it’s the age where the most amazing transformations take place. Every single leaf drops every single year from a sycamore, and it is the end of nothing. I came to the garden and found the shortest course to strength and freedom. I learned that all my faith lies in the path of least resistance—in the humble power and aching grace of letting go.