Right now I am on my back porch, and before me, rising approximately thirty feet into the blue sky, is a maple tree aflame. It is a maple in autumn.
The maple is edged in rusty red and shot through with golds, and it bears an inner foliage still green but not for long. As green and full as that foliage once was, no one would deny that it is at its most beautiful today. Those greens have given way to a veritable rainbow of colors that do not simply comfort and shade, but captivate and dazzle. Those leaves have turned or are turning, and every few seconds another one breaks loose and rides the current of that liberating breeze until it is deposited upon my lawn.
Science tells me that this tree is deciduous, and that these leaves have been abscised because they are not currently essential. It tells me the rusty reds and the golds are the result of a change in the leaves’ pigments, as the carotenoids and xanthophylls and anthocyanins have revealed themselves in the wake of the dropping temperatures and the sun which does not shine so long these days. Chlorophyll is no longer produced, and so these pigment changes are the evidence that tree and leaf are protecting themselves in an inclement season. When a gust of wind tears a leaf from its place on the maple’s limbs, there is left a leaf scar, but these scars serve a purpose, protecting the naked limbs and preparing it to bear the foliage again in warmer, brighter days.
Those that fall upon my lawn we call “dead leaves,” but the maple no more considers them dead as it considers itself dead. No, these leaves fall to the ground and carpet the earth around the maple, and as they turn gray and brown and crackle underfoot, they release the last of their precious nutrients back into soil where it no doubt returns to the maple by way of the roots. So, the leaves that we see die are the leaves we see alive when spring arrives. What has fallen has fallen for the maple’s good, not its ill.
This is not resurrection. It is perseverance.
But what of the maple itself? The roots and the trunk and the limbs? In another month, it will appear to me as good as dead. If any leaves remain attached, too tightly fastened to be torn loose by the wind, they have shriveled and released whatever energy or food or chemical was in them. The maple stands naked and cold, a gray skeleton against a pallid, winter sky.
Were I an impatient man, concerned only with results, only with what comforts me or what dazzles my eye, and I was unaware of what the seasons promise the future holds, I would certainly take an axe to that maple. There would be no point in leaving a dead, worthless thing such as I see it standing in my yard. I’d perceive the leaves it has dropped as nothing but a nuisance to rake together and stuff into trash bags. I would not realize my chopping and my raking to be the work of the murderer rather than the mortician. I would bring an end to life simply because I was not willing to accept that life – and endurance and energy and expectancy – does not always appear the way I think it should.
The leaves are not dying. They are changing. The maple is not withdrawing. It is renewing.
May we who wander this earth and go back and forth within it be found as faithful as this maple. May the things about us that change and turn and often fall away do so out of our commitment to perseverance. As surely as the Son shines now, it will shine brighter and warmer in the days to come. Let us be ready.