The Beauty and Value of Fallen Leaves

by John Smelser 


Willow leaves on a frozen pond

 “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

William Shakespeare
King John - Act IV, Scene 2


Japanese painted fern emerging from leaf litter

“There is no death! The leaves may fall,
And flowers may fade and pass away—
They only wait, through wintry hours,
The warm, sweet breath of May.”

John Luckey McCreery (1835–1906)
There is No Death


Southern wood fern blanketed with oak leaves

“Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.”

Robert Frost (1874-1963)
In Hardwood Groves


Sycamore leaf resting on wintercreeper

“Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods
And day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.”

William Allingham (1824–1889
Autumnal Sonnet


Sweetgum leaf & bristly fruiting cluster on grass

“Martha: “What is Autumn?” Jan: “A second spring, where the leaves imitate the flowers. Maybe it would be so too with human beings that you would see bloom if only you helped them with your patience.””

Albert Camus (1913-1960)
The Misunderstanding


The colors of subtlety
“Slowly, slowly wisdom gathers:
Golden dust in the afternoon,
Somewhere between the sun and me,
Sometimes so near that I can see,
Yet never settling, late or soon.
Would that it did, and a rug of gold
Spread west of me a mile or more:
Not large, but so that I might lie
Face up, between the earth and sky,
And know what none has known before.

Then I would tell as best I could
The secrets of that shining place:
The web of the world, how thick, how thin,
How firm, with all things folded in;
How ancient, and how full of grace.”

Mark Van Doren, U.S. Poet Laureate
Slowly, Slowly Wisdom Gathers


A fresh carpet

“The crunch and quiver of the ground underfoot, the swish of leaves around the ankles, the earthy fragrance, make the forest peculiarly sensuous and personal. Leaves on the trees had been far away and out of reach, blended in the green clouds of the forest canopy. But now, looking down at the details of the fresh carpet, the outlines of individual leaves attract the eye. No artist could draw more glamorous points, curves, waves and angles.”

Rutherford Platt
The Great American Forest


Transient glory

“In the mountain village
The wind rustles the leaves.
Deep in the night, the deer
Cry out beyond the edge of dreams.”

Minamoto No Morotada
Bamboo Flute: poems from the Cherry Tree


The fire within is now without

“Whichever way we turn this morning, we are surrounded by the most abundant color, in the most brilliant hues of the year, the million tinted leaves that clothe our woodlands – scarlet and crimson and yellow on the swamp maples, wine red on the tupelos, …clear red on the highbush blueberries, minted gold on the spicebushes, scarlet and rose red and lavender on the sumacs, yellows of varying shades on the aspens, the birches, the wild cherries, the tulip trees, and the hickories.”

Edwin Way Teale
A Walk Through The Year


Upright pear leaves, overturned sweetgum

“We occasionally rested in the shade of a maple or a willow, and drew forth a melon for our refreshment, while we contemplated at our leisure the lapse of the river and of human life; and as that current, with its floating twigs and leaves, so did all things pass in review before us, while far away in cities and marts on this very stream, the old routine was proceeding still. There is, indeed, a tide in the affairs of men, as the poet says, and yet as things flow they circulate, and the ebb always balances the flow. All streams are but tributary to the ocean, which itself does not stream, and the shores are unchanged, but in longer periods than man can measure. Go where we will, we discover infinite change in particulars only, not in generals.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers


Temporary tapestries

“Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.”

Philip Larkin (1922–1986)
And now the leaves suddenly lose strength