An uncensored, unscripted, unleashed look at the autumnal falling leaf
Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling. —Franz Kafka
For the past week I’ve succumbed to capturing one small but significant moment in the natural history of deciduous trees. That is, when a leaf leaves its potent attachment to the tree, strikes out on its own, and floats down to earth.
Maybe it’s the economy and my severe underemployment that has allowed for such petty rapport with leaves. Perhaps it’s this native Californian (myself) who is slowly, inexorably being swamped by the fibrous torture of these Georgian woods, this Southern mélange of hickory, ash, maple, elm, hemlock, beech, oak, and pine that hide sun, vista, and all sense of direction. Or perhaps it is finally a Zen thing, my own life departing from summer to autumn (the new 40) and manifesting itself in the infinite metaphor of life, death, and propitious rebirth that falling leaves so obviously imply.
Whatever the case, it is not easy making photographs of them. A hot-tempered, boozed-up hummingbird would be far easier to ensnare photographically. Once the leaf becomes airborne they take on a personality of their own, swayed by the unconditional bind of nature and nurture—wind, water, temperature, photoperiodism (the length of day and night) and the shape and weight of the leaf, respectively. Only a few fly perfectly like paper airplanes, gliding graciously into the viewfinder. Most, if not all, spin and weave and flail in the air for only a few seconds before cluttering the ground to become the bane of rake and blower in the worst case, and the fodder of compost on the spongy forest floor in the best.
But these airborne leafy moments are nonetheless transcendent, graceful affairs, playing out billions of times in the autumn air. They are the moment when part of the tree sheds its source of gathering sunlight for photosynthesis and goes willingly into dormancy until spring when it starts the process all over again with a new bud. All this at exactly the point of the departed leaf, the zone of abscission, the bundle scar, as any good botanist will tell you. It is a moment as light as the few ounces each leaf weighs but a moment as profound as the tree itself, rooted as it is without the means to wander.
For those that know their way around an f-stop and a shutter speed, I use a long zoom lens (Canon 70-200mm L-series 2.8) often with a 2X extender that effectively bumps up the focal length to 400mm attached to an SLR digital body. In order to isolate the falling leaf from the busy background of trunks, stems, and leaves that have yet to fall, a wide-open F-stop (f 2.8-3.5) is key, which further complicates the challenge of getting the pesky leaf to be in focus. But with a wide-open lens, this generally gives me the crucially fast shutter speed; which come to think about it, the shutter is often called a “leaf.”
One day, while walking through the woods near a nearby lake on the Emory University campus, I found an abandoned hexagonal stone building, presumably for controlling the water out of the lake. Missing a roof, when a gust of wind blew leaves would flutter down in the most benevolent and well-behaved sort of way. I came back the next day armed with two off-camera strobes to light up the dark interior—a leaf studio as it were—and waited. Sure enough, the leaves bound in through the missing roof, but once out of the wind they floated unflinchingly into view, the strobes suspending their flights.
Outside, because the leaf is so often moving fast in the dappled light of the woods, I focus the lens manually since the auto focus most always is attracted to the background rather than the fast-falling leaf. I chase this leaf hither and thither all the way to the ground hoping that at least some of it is in focus. That’s the angst aspect of this enterprise, though I’m sure the tree feels a bit of it too.
I’ve set up some hard and fast rules that I hope bring honor and character to the profession of leaf photography. No mendacious use of Photoshop with a leaf spilled into a better background. No manually throwing the leaves in the air or the employment of a ladder with a delightful rhinestone-clad assistant atop it. No strings or monofilament line attached. And no monkey business like a pet chimp shaking the leaves out of the tree despite the hand-in-hand satisfaction a walk in the woods with a fellow ape would give. None of these methods have I deemed acceptable. Only the leaf leaving its nine-month mooring to the tree by natural means is allowed or even considered. Anything short of this is man-made trickery.
Technical details aside, pictures of falling leaves are either mistakes or strokes of luck. Gravity, light, and leaf must all morph together in the great autumnal hand of God and the Mother of all Nature. Well, something like that. The thing is, I know the metaphor of falling leaf is deep, deeper than the obvious one that falls off the trees of our short-lived and precious lives, but I’m not sure I really want to go there at the risk of sounding sentimental and trite—as if I haven’t already succumbed. Even it does it warrant an explanation, I’ll just say that right now I’ve chosen to avoid thoughts about death and my own existential place in the universe for the simple fact the leaves have begun to teach me that life is best lived with all the spontaneity of Now! They have forced me to rethink the relation I have to nature and time, whether I’m wasting it or putting it to good use. Like the Zen master hath said, “Awakening to this present instant we realize the infinite is the finite of each instant.”
The French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of photojournalism, said that he thought himself a Zen-archer, becoming the target in order to “see” the subject he was making a picture of. “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards,” he said. “Never while actually taking the photograph.” Exactly. Said like a true leaf photographer who has since joined the same fate as a pile of leaves.
But would simply watching the leaves fall without documenting it bring the same pleasure of awakening? And what changes the experience when you have a record of it? Because my own Zen-ness needs work, the questions remain as ubiquitous as an album of family photographs worth saving from a fire or a stack of old black & white photographs laying for sale on a flea market table. What is left of our own short flights through this world often amounts to few photographs that last about as long as the life of an average tree.
So the thinking about falling leaves comes afterwards, if at all. Watching the leaf zigzag this way and that has forced me into the humble moment that is part and parcel to the grand connectedness of life. Why, just as I ate a sandwich or brushed my teeth, or even took a photograph, it’s likely a million-plus other people in the world were doing the same thing at the exact moment with the nearly the same thought. (“This sandwich is quite satisfying and nutritious;” “What a pain in the ass, but at least my teeth won’t fall out as fast;” “That’s somewhat interesting. Let me raise this camera to my eye and take a photograph.”)
And so on and so on. But collectively the leaves and us make a measurable impact on the earth. Consider the Keeling Curve, the iconic study of the world’s fluctuating (and increasing!) CO2 levels. Using instruments based on the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the Curve measure the cyclic variation of CO2 in the atmosphere and looks somewhat like a jagged waves climbing a steep slope of beach. The upswing of the wave, which each represent a year, are in part the result of all the those billions of leaves decaying on the ground in the fall while the downswing is all the new leaves photosynthesizing and taking the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the spring. All fine and natural in the interface between the botanical and the atmospheric, between plant and sky. The disturbing, guilt-ridden thing, though, about the Keeling Curve is the steep climb it makes over the years, a soaring rise that is the result of you and me. Of our desire to find more comfort and perhaps too little transcendence. To chew, digest, burn, and fly from the past into the beyond while nature falls away.
That’s the environmental coda for the day, but to get an idea about how many leaves fall, it’s best to step into the state of New Hampshire where leaf peepers, as they’re called, come out in mass each fall. A state where long winters provide time to ponder such practical questions about leaves. The newspaper Telegraph Nashua reported that the New Hampshire Forest Resources estimated that the 4 billion trees living in the state produce 1.9 million tons of fallen leaves each season. Staggering numbers considering how imperceptible the weight of one leaf feels in your hand. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that these arboreal statistics were gathered “off-the-record” from the Forest Service. Employees there wished not to be identified “probably because they should have been doing something useful instead,” the reporter wrote, unable to contain a little leafy editorializing of his own. And I suppose so should I. The leaves will soon be all stripped from the trees; already my favorite falling leaf-producing red maple that gets the full brunt of breeze is shorn, a skeleton of bones stabbed into the increasingly cold ground. But today, for just a few hours at least, I’ll go watch the leaves fall one last time for the year. This time I won’t bring the camera or the metaphors. Instead I’ll attempt something I haven’t really done before. Watch them fall plainly without preconceptions. To open the senses to the moment, crackling leaves underfoot, the flittering flights of fancy in the air, and all the rest of the leaves that have yet to fall. Then I’ll get back to work, or what’s left of it to do.