advent journal: leaf lessons


On this last day of November, the only leaves on the trees belong to the evergreens. A post about what I learned from the autumn leaves is woefully late, especially in a culture that puts out Halloween calendar in mid-August, but such is the nature of my life in these days.

One of those who wrote with the season was Maria Popova on her wonderful site, The Marginalian, where she wrote about the magic of cholophyll:

But autumn is also the season of revelation, for the seeming loss unveils a larger reality: Chlorophyll is a life-force but it is also a cloak, and when trees shed it from their leaves, nature’s true colors are revealed.

Photosynthesis is nature’s way of making life from light. Chlorophyll allows a tree to capture photons, extracting a portion of their energy to make the sugars that make it a tree — the raw material for leaves and bark and roots and branches — then releasing the photons at lower wavelengths back into the atmosphere. A tree is a light-catcher that grows life from air.

Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier were the two men who identified chlorophyll in 1817. I say identified rather than discovered because that was the way they talked about what they had found.

We have no right to name a substance long-known, and to the story of which we have added only a few facts; however, we will propose, without granting it any importance, the name chlorophyll, from chloros, color, and φυλλον, leaf: a name that would indicate the role it plays in nature.

The described what they saw rather than try to take credit for it. Chlorophyll: the color of leaves. In the last hundred years, we have learned that more is going on in the leaves of autumn.

But chlorophyll, which is yet to be fully understood, is not the only pigment in trees. Throughout a leaf’s life, four primary pigments course through its cells: the green of chlorophyll, but also the yellow of xanthophyll, the orange of carotenoids, and the reds and purples of anthocyanins.

In spring and summer, when the days grow long and bright, chlorophyll saturates leaves as the tree busies itself converting photons into the sweetness of new growth.

As daylight begins fading in autumn and the air cools, deciduous trees prepare for wintering and stop making food — an energy expenditure too metabolically expensive in the dearth of sunlight. Enzymes begin breaking down the decommissioned chlorophyll, allowing the other pigments that had been there invisibly all along to come aflame. And because we humans so readily see in trees metaphors for our emotional lives, how can this not be a living reminder that every loss reveals what we are made of — an affirmation of the value of a breakdown?

I will go ahead and say right now that a post on “the value of a breakdown” is in my future, but what caught me in Popova’s words was “every loss reveals what we are made of.” Cue Cyndi Lauper:

I see your true colors shining through
I see your true colors and that’s why I love you
so don’t be afraid to let them show
your true colors are beautiful like the rainbow

Richard Rohr has also been my autumn companion, alongside Caventou and Pelletier and Popova. I am learning from him as well.

Only the human species absents itself from the agreed-on pattern [in nature] and the general dance of life and death. . . . Necessary suffering goes on every day, seemingly without question. . . . Most of nature seems to totally accept major loss, gross inefficiency, mass extinctions, and sort life spans as the price of it all. Feeling that sadness, even its full absurdity, ironically puts us into the general dance, the unified field, an ironic and deep gratitude for what is given–with no necessity and so gratuitously. All beauty is gratuitous. So whom can we blame when it seems to be taken away? Grace seems to be at the foundation of everything.

There is no good reason for beauty, just as, I suppose we could say there is no good reason for suffering. It’s all grace and gravity, or, perhaps, grace and gratitude.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I read an article that talked about helping people move from asking, “Why is this happening to me?” (a question with no good answers) to “What does this mean for my life?” The difference between the two questions has been helpful over the years in looking at ways to make meaning out of what happens to us. Rohr gave me a deeper insight into the second question in my reading this morning.

For postmodern people, the universe is not inherently enchanted, as it was for the ancients. We have to do all the “enchanting” ourselves. This leaves us alone, confused, and doubtful. There is no meaning already in place for our discovery and enjoyment. We have to create all meaning by ourselves in such an inert and empty world, and most of us do not seem to succeed very well. This is the burden of living in our heady and lonely time, when we think it is all up to us.

But there’s more to the story, he says.

The gift of living in our time, however, is that we are more and more discovering that the sciences, particularly physics, astrophysics, anthropology, and biology, are confirming many of the deep intuitions of religion, and at a rather quick pace in recent years. The universe really is “inspired matter,” we now know, and is not merely inert. . . . God seems to have created things that continue to create and recreate themselves from the inside out.

That last sentence includes us as well. We continue to create and recreate ourselves, or at least that is the invitation from the leaves and most everything else around us.

If I were to go back through my photos, I could probably find a dozen pictures like the one at the top of this post. Though they would all look alike, they each mark a moment when I was not who I am and where I am right now. To borrow from Stanley Kunitz, “I am not yet done with my changes.” I feel like the leaves I watched all fall, finding new colors, new beauty, even as I struggle with life on a day to day basis. In the middle of it all, ironically, I am grateful. Morning by morning, new mercies I see.

So, I’m late with my autumn reflection. I’m talking about leaves and the trees have turned to sleeping stick figures. That doesn’t mean I can’t still see their colors, or that it is too late for me to learn and grow about what fills them and you and me.



  1. Thank you for your wonderful autumn reflection. Here in Oklahoma we still have beautiful leaves. Morning by morning new mercies I see. My favorite line from that sweet hymn is one I have recited daily for the past two years as I have gone through breast cancer: strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Love you!

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