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An autumn tale - the tree, the leaf, and the root

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This fall the leaves stayed on the trees longer than usual, then came down in sudden floods of red and orange and gold, released by every gust of wind that passed. The handymen who make their living in late October and early November by cleaning leaves out of gutters were forced to wait and wait, and the rest of us had to wait with them.

Impetuous events occurred everywhere else. American troops precipitously invaded Grenada before the echo of that mad catastrophic explosion in Beirut had faded. History was at its most hot and headlong.

Yet those leaves, for a long time, refused to fall. It was as if nature dissociated itself - not for the first time - from the tempo of human events. All that unrhythmic human haste! All that frenzied interruption of the stately cycle!

Indeed, these autumn trees seemed to balk even at the interpretation human beings usually lay upon them. Ever since Shakespeare wrote of ''the sere, the yellow leaf'' and ''bare ruin'd choirs,'' trees in November have been claimed a little too glibly as metaphors of mortality. Autumn '83 - marked by more body counts than any autumn since the end of the Vietnam war - might have made the dour symbolism appear more tempting than ever. But on the contrary, something about this reluctant defoliation has forced the onlooker to study the phenomenon more carefully - to note, in fact, that there is a special assertion to life being expressed by an autumn tree.

If you take a second look, the stripped branches and that stark trunk say, ''You're a fool to think my life is embodied in anything so ephemeral, so cosmetic, so vulnerable, as a green leaf. Nature is tougher than nature's poets.''

By their very delay, the late-falling leaves this autumn remind us how many crops of leaves are shed over the years while the tree lives on to produce still another green harvest for still another spring.

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