From a bit of a distance, I can see the leaves on the highest branches of the Autumn Blaze Maple in our backyard catching fire as they stretch upward into the cool, early fall sky here in Southern Ontario. Sitting indoors, though, in the comfortable spot where I spend the early moments of my day in quiet reflection, I can only see a third of the tree at most, and only a solitary branch of red against the backdrop shades of green.
But even a third of something beautiful is enough to inspire someone who happens to be paying attention, and so, one day last summer, I snapped a quick photo from this same vantage point when our tree was still in the fullness of its summer glory.
When we moved into our current home seventeen years ago, there was a small and rather unimpressive Ivory Silk Lilac in the back corner of the yard, but nothing else to provide our growing young family with any kind of shade. This made for plenty of hot summer days in the backyard with no relief from the heat and humidity, which is why I knocked on my neighbour’s door one day and asked if he’d mind hitching up his trailer and driving over to John’s Nursery with me to pick out a tree that would provide us with shade on some day in the distant future.
Gil was a long-haul trucker and would occasionally bring us random overrun items that he had picked up along the way. (One time it was a stack of vegetarian TV dinners, which I thought my vegetarian brother and sister-in-law would be excited about, but I soon learned that just because the box says ‘vegetarian’ doesn’t necessarily mean the food is edible.) He was that chatty neighbour that people are happy to run into on a lazy weekend, and I knew that asking him for help would be just the kind of thing he was looking for on this particular Saturday afternoon.
I spent as much as I could bear on the tree—three hundred and some dollars—which saved us a few years of growing, for sure, but I knew we would still have to wait quite a few more before our family could sit outside and finally enjoy a meal together in the shade. Gil helped me unload the tree and settle it in the hole, after which I grabbed the spade and filled it up again, gave the tree a good soaking, and waited.
The tree has been everything I hoped it would be all those years ago, and its branches now stretch out over the edge of our deck creating a canopy of sorts where it’s something along the lines of magical to recline and enjoy the sounds and smells of summer without melting away in the heat of the sun.
But it wasn’t any of those benefits that struck me around this same time last year when I sat in my familiar morning spot and took a second photo on my phone. It was a photo of the same tree on a two month delay, after the leaves had exchanged their calming summer greens for the more audacious reds of autumn. When I took that second photo, my life was going through a significant change that somehow seemed to match what I was observing through the window. It occurred to me that what was happening to this tree of ours was also happening to me: my life was changing its colour.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t enjoy the colourful palette that spreads across October skies in this part of the world with the accompanying crunch of leaves underfoot as families and dogs and teenagers tramp along trails and through woodlots. Which is to say, there’s nothing wrong with change, in and of itself. In fact, it can be inspiring and motivating and all kinds of other good things.
But the thought that crossed my mind as soon as I had taken that second photo was this: not only did my life seem to be imitating the artistic expression of our backyard maple in this moment, but it was almost guaranteed to do so in the months that would follow as well. This was a significant realization, because, well, what happens after the leaves on a tree change their colours? They fall to the ground, that’s what.
When change comes in our lives, as it does in nature, it comes with its own agenda and rarely pauses to ask our opinion on the matter. I could come up with a number of analogies to try and explain the change I went through in my life last winter, but leaves falling to the ground revealing a skeleton of bare branches left to fend for themselves against the whipping winter wind would be as apt as any other. And so, the third photo I took was in the early weeks of winter when the state of our tree and the cold grey sky behind it once again seemed to reflect my experience of life in that moment.
Winters are long here—certainly not as long as in some corners of the globe, but also much longer than other places where the sun seems to shine year round. But the thing is, when you’re scraping ice off a windshield or bundling a third layer on to go for a walk or shoveling two feet of snow off of your driveway, it doesn’t really matter what someone else somewhere else thinks about the climate in their own neighbourhood, does it?
My winter was long, and it was cold, and it was deep.
And then one morning I looked out the same window at the same tree and noticed something almost imperceptibly different. The tiniest of buds were beginning to appear on those previously barren branches. Of course I knew this day would come, but I didn’t feel this day would come. But there they were, emerging with hope and a promise of new life, and so I snapped a fourth photo.
After months of dormancy and silence and nothingness, the fifth and sixth and seventh photos came in rapid succession, slightly different versions of the same miracle: those lifeless limbs inhaling and exhaling like the army of dry bones that put on flesh and came to life in Ezekiel’s ancient vision. Hope where hope had no business showing up. Grace when grace was least expected.
Which is what life started feeling like for myself, too. Small buds becoming larger buds becoming tips of leaves and eventually the familiar bright green foliage that had first grabbed my attention during that quiet morning nine months earlier. Life was coming back, as it always does. Not the same leaves—those were dead and gone—but new leaves. I took another photo and the cycle was complete.
I won’t keep taking pictures like this forever, but I snapped one final addition to my collection this week when I noticed that first, solitary branch of red burst onto the scene in our backyard. I am once again preparing for a season of significant change in my life, although it feels very different this time around. This fall, there is an excitement building, a palpable sense of anticipation of what’s coming.
Which is to say, I don’t imagine I will resonate in quite the same way with the dropping leaves and stripped branches outside of my window this year, but I’m sure they will continue to speak to me in other ways, in new ways.
And I will listen to what they have to say.