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A Chapel Of Leaves

In the heart of Paris is an island in the Seine River. In the middle of the island is a large palace, La Palais de Justice, and in the middle of the palace is an ancient chapel, Le Sainte Chapelle. You enter it from an insignificant, short staircase off in a corner. At the top, you step out into an immense jewel; you are inside a ruby-sapphire-emerald. Walls made of tiny pieces of brilliantly colored stained glass reach from floor to sky, filling the air with living color. When the sun shines through the glass.... Ah, the glory of it!

For a few days in October, on a hillside in Pawlet, Vt., far from Paris, the emotional and visible equivalent of that beautiful French chapel is right in my backyard. You walk down a small slope, along a narrow path, past a wall of pines, and suddenly you are standing in a vast cathedral of maples, even larger than the ancient chapel.

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The glory part of my cathedral comes when the maple leaves are lit with purest sunshine, glow red and gold against a ceiling painted with live sky blue, and when the forest floor is covered by an oriental carpet of new-fallen leaves and ferns, turned from green to autumn-gold. Great trunks, more than 80 feet tall, and strong curved branches form gothic arches to hold up radiant crowns. You are in the quiet of a holy place.

I invite you to sit down among crisp leaves and to choose a comfortable tree to lean against. Wait.... Leaves take their time in their falling. Soon you will see an enchanting service: The Ballet of the Falling Leaves. As with snowflakes, no two leaves are alike. Some are half curled up, some flat, some yellow, brown, brilliant red, or combinations of colors, some tiny, some large. Each descends in its own fashion.

First you may see only one small leaf, alone in that vast space, flying free of its tree, then swinging off at an angle, and tucking into the carpet with a soft, chuffy sound. Next, you may see two at once, in ballet language, a pas de deux. They swirl around each other, bowing, dipping, dancing. A small puff whispers to a tree, and a whole chorus, corps de ballet, flutters down from it, spinning, somersaulting, skipping, some fast, some slow. A few are caught and decorate the shaggy bark of a hickory tree. You may notice one leaf doing a solo pirouette in midair, spinning so fast that it blurs. (Its stem has been trapped by an invisible spiderweb.)

Moments pass when nothing falls, but don't be impatient. All at once, responding to a fair-sized breeze, a leaf-blizzard envelops you as hundreds of leaves drop at once, making that soft, chuffy sound as they land. They drop right beside you, fall in your lap, kiss you on the head. Like Fourth of July skyrockets lighting up the whole sky during the grand finale, the forest is alight with gold and red flying leaves: up on the mountains, down in the valleys, in and out among all the great trunks and branches. The forest is celebrating.


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