At certain times of the year our yard was the most popular one in town - not for games of hide-and-seek or basketball, but for its trees. The fact of its popularity meant that some teacher had issued a directive to students, requesting a leaf collection. Our yard had a wide variety of trees within spitting distance of each other, enough to fill every scrapbook in town. Twelve trees; no waiting.
I remember one child collector told me: "My mother said this was the best place to come. She always came here."
A few minutes of effortless searching would yield a dozen collectible specimens: the ubiquitous silver and sugar maples, persimmon, ginkgo, and mimosa. (Uncle Ed was encouraged to plant the mimosa by neighbors who insisted that "You can't grow that tree here in this kind of climate!" He was committed to bringing the exotic to our small river valley Ohio town.)
Next door, in the Kaisers' backyard, were English walnuts (famous for furniture, nuts, and stained fingers) and a copse of smallish trees that were pretty but humdrum: sumac, sassafras, apple, willow, dogwood, and the lord of the manor, the blue ash. So many different trees growing on a plot of earth less than half a football field in size!
Yet, among the scores of collectors over a score of years, not one colored leaf worthy of preservation or remembrance was ever found.
Poets use a lot of adjectives to describe the splendor of autumn leaves - golden, scarlet, bronzed, drifting, glorious, ablaze, and the like. Artists squeeze thousand of tubes of carmine, sienna, and saffron. Writers of John Bartlett quality and lowly ones at home computers fill hard drives with hyperbole.
And all of it fails to capture the grandeur of a single October maple leaf.
I am comforted by the fact that although the color of a dead leaf serves the tree no purpose, for us the leaves' colors - more colors than a thousand imaginations can summon - provide an unearthly purpose.
Walk through your backyard or hike in the woods and try to find one rare and perfect fallen leaf. Keep the search simple: Find the common oak or maple whose leaves fall ankle-deep. Leave the infrequent raintree and Kentucky coffee tree for the persistent and experienced.
But first, pick the right autumn - one that produces the finest succession of colors. The season must be long and dry, free of cold or heavy rains.
There must be no freezes before the leaves are ready. No heavy winds to remove the leaves before their time. They need a propitious combination of moisture, temperature, and sunlight to coax the carbohydrates from the leaf to the tree, providing its winter food. Iron and other minerals the rising sap brought from the soil to the leaf contribute reds and yellows and purples. These pigments, no longer hidden by chlorophyll, provide the fireworks display called autumn.
Search the ground for a well-shaped leaf whose colors have not faded, the bright pigments evenly proportioned, a leaf not blown too soon to the ground by wind or rain.
Find a leaf that escaped cute caterpillars and homely bugs like mites, aphids, and inchworms. Find a leaf without holes or ragged edges; free of fungus, cankers, or galls; a leaf without rusty orange spots or silvery white spots. Find a leaf free of scab or blight.
Preserve the leaf. Press it with a warm iron between sheets of waxed paper. Place it next to a single, perfect rose. Revel.