Beyond the last leaf

Watching a tree braving it out in the face of adversities

December 23, 2018 12:04 am | Updated 12:04 am IST



There is a delightful, highly sentimental story by O. Henry about a young artist in New York in the early part of the last century. Young Johnsy and her artist companion, Sue, lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Winter came and Johnsy caught pneumonia and she became critically ill. The doctor told Sue to be prepared for the worst. Outside their window there was a vine with attractive foliage, but it started shedding leaves one by one as summer passed through fall into winter. Finally, only one last leaf remained. Johnsy told Sue that when that leaf fell, her life would also go. A concerned elderly artist friend of the girls, hearing this story, climbed outside the window in the bitterly cold night and painted a life-like leaf at the spot from where the last leaf had just fallen. Came dawn, when Johnsy looked out of the window from her sick bed, lo and behold, the leaf was still there and it continued to be there on the following days. The girl regained her will to live and was fully recovered in a few days.

Far removed in time and far away from O. Henry’s America, in the hot climes of Chennai, I also have my own leaf or, rather, many leaves, which I have adopted and whose growth I follow closely. Leaves are a weakness for me. Leaves in their variety of shapes and hues are things of beauty in their own right. In addition to being providers of shade and solace to weary eyes, they are the primary producers of food on earth and the most important agents of carbon fixation and a shield against global warming.

During my morning walks along the beach I spend time watching the trees on the way. I observe new buds appear at the nodes and then bloom out into leaves. One particular tree, Cocoloba uvifera , the Sea Grape tree, has fascinated me. It is short, sprawling but sturdy, capable of withstanding the salt-laden sea wind and survive in the saline terrain. This tree is a wonder in its own right. When the sea bombards the beach vegetation with salt spray, the leaves of most other species literally get ‘burnt’ — but not the sea grape tree. The tree seems to drink the sea water and spit out the salt. The early morning dew drops sticking to the underside of the leaves are strongly salty to taste.

I have adopted one tree out of the many, as my own. I watch a new bud appear at a node which grows and in a few days it opens up bringing out a small honey-coloured leaf, thick, fleshy and shining.

It is a slow process. It takes weeks, even months, for the leaf to grow to its full size, circular in shape, about half a foot or more in diameter. More leaves appear one by one, slowly. The leaf is sturdy. It may be a year or more before signs of old age set in, first as a browning at the edges, which spreads inwards. Under the onslaught of wind, my leaf finally falls.

Unlike O. Henry’s Johnsy, I am not sentimental; I have not attached my life to that particular leaf. There are many more buds peeping out from the stem of my tree and there are many more trees. I adopt another tree, another bud, and life goes on. It will end for me when the time comes as it did for the leaf, but life, death and rebirth is a never ending process.

I had never seriously thought about the meaning of life and death. Being a born Hindu, I am familiar with the idea of punarapi jananam, punarapi maranam … but the trees have given a fresh clarity to the concept.

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