What a leaf means

I have a particular fondness for skylights. I don’t have one currently at home but straight out of my office door, in my view above my computer screen, is a large, square skylight. A small batallion of very straight trees marches across the top of a high bank behind the office building itself and provide a backdrop to racing raindrops, wisps of steam from a neighbouring boiler, and whatever fluttery gifts the weather leaves us. I prefer natural light as much as possible, I value the shifts and nuances of the sun’s influnce on that skylight according to hour and season. It hints in a firmly Neolithic direction this time of year. Through another skylight in another section of the building I get gorgeous framefulls of twilight skies, occasionally sketched over by flying birds. Other favourite skylights have rainscapes, a study of ash tree and magpies and the occasional glass swimming cat.

My office skylight, currently dividing the tree line with heavy columns of raindrops, was sporting a particularly fetching oak leaf most of the morning. The oak trees seemed determined to hang on to their leaves this year, and this one, still autumnal in feel, lied hard to me about what month it is. It occurs to me that my entire sense of the world-in-time I live in has been largely informed by leaves. Here on the edge of Europe, in a large stretch of flat land before the country buckles and heaps its last stops before the Wild Atlantic, I have a West Europe sense of water, of daylight, of sun and shadow, of time. Leaves herald the start of the new growing season, growing lush and plentiful, quickened with sap. In summer they bask, broad and green, not often disturbed from their busy sorcery turning sunlight to food by any lack of water. In autumn they tinge, colour, fall, fascinate my eye. In winter they are an undead texture underfoot, darkly teeming with insects and fungi, nourishing the promise of the light, bright cycle to start again. They’re leaves largely able to get their leaf on.

In other parts of the world leaves are thin and hard to prevent damage and water loss, or thick and succulent to store water for the difficult dry. Maybe they never fall, or fall differently. They are differently green, they’re shapes are exotic to my eye. I can’t help thinking that living in a place dominated by evergreens or cacti one’s sense of place and time by necessity is not the same as mine. I’ve recently become fascinated with how other cultures measure their passing seasons, but that is a story for another day. Today, because of a recent conversation, my focus is going to try to be on the idea of what a leaf signifies/symbolizes. If we suddenly found ourselves obliged to come up with some new understanding of the language of natural things, what is it that we carry with us from our past and add from our present day? Since we have removed ourselves over time from our relationship with the Natural world has the meaning changed? If we consider that we have moved from a society that knew thrived or failed on the whims of Nature to a society that arrogantly seems to believe we have a lot more control over our environment, wouldn’t some of our symbology have changed?

So. A leaf, from my Island in the Northern hemisphere on the edge of the Atlantic perspective, and given my rather serious forest obsession, foresty leaves. It doesn’t take long to call up cultural ideas of what a leaf signifies; growth, hope, energy, life, life cycles, fertility, nature, afterlife. Every time people want to think of a symbol for anything vital or growing chances are they choose a leaf or a seedling with its emerging leaf. Want something clean and healthy? Leaf. Something idea of hope springing from disaster? If it’s not a leaf it’s a candle flame. In extremely dry places any suggestion of green shot and leaf has to even more strongly represent the notion of life and hope. In all cultures strange miracles of bringing people back to life were often wrought with leaves or staves with green leaf appearing. In Wall-E the return to the rubbish laden Earth to start anew was heralded by the small new leaves on a seedling.

Years ago whole communities would have been aware of the health of the plants and trees around them because it meant so much to their own survival. In our modern lives where our foodstuff often comes stripped of leaves and ready packaged, the majority of us are not aware of the dangers of strange shapes and furrs, mildews and insect damage. A damaged , sick leaf must have been a scary symbol to a lot more people once. Apart from that I racked my brain to think of any leaf that might bode ill in its whole, intended state, but apart from poisons, for very obvious reasons, nothing immediately comes to mind. The shape of the leaf matters to its meaning; curled, young leaves are more hopeful than old, they have purpose, they are shaping into potential. Old curled leaves are reaching their end, their determination. Both have an inevitable direction. So leaves can symbolise movement, motion forward, the inevitability and the cyclical nature of change. Any historian worth their salt knows we move in cycles.

A dead leaf is a symbol of death and sadness, the inevitable conclusion of life. I mused a bit about yew trees, one of the few original evergreen trees in Ireland, and how they’ve become, in Irish culture, the ministers for the change between worlds, this one and the next. All of a yew is poisonous except the pink flesh of the berry around the poisonous seed at the core. Yew trees are, essentially, death, alive. They drop branches that resurrect into new trees. They stay green when the rest of the world is bare. They stand as messengers between life and death, this world and the next, the masters of inevitable change. The yews in the Botanic gardens this year have more berries than I have ever seen, it’s hard not to take it as a sign of change, and probably not the good kind.

I started to poke at individual leaf “meanings” on the internet and fell into my usual irritation with the hodgepodge of definitive statements that live there. Any amount of definitions exist for many varieties of leaf without any particular reference point to support it. An early search declared that “A single leaf is an ancient heraldic symbol that represents happiness.” What heraldic source can I check this with? I think it’s a fair thing to posit, I accept without question the life as a cultural symbol of life and hope, as above, key things for happiness etc, but somehow happiness is harder to definitely attribute. Ivy leaves, because of their tenacity and evergreen nature, are said to be symbols of friendship, the internet tells me. But said by who,and from when? Again, it makes a lot of sense, but I start to get a bit frustrated with lack of evidence for these very specific things and how they fit in very specific cultures and timelines. So while I amuse myself often with leaf meanings I will need to narrow my search to a definite set of parameters (leaf varieties as symbols in Irish mythology, for example) before I would be comfortable talking much more about them individually.

In Europe leaves feature in religious ideas, and ideas of proper morality. The famous shamrock = Trinity leaf metaphor of Ireland goes without comment. In my neck of the woods a leaf can, in some communities, be a symbol of shame or of modesty – Adam and Eve clothed themselves in leaves, it is said, when they discovered they were naked. A prudish society ordered the genitals of art pieces be hidden with fake leaves. I have strong associations of leaves being good at hiding things or as symbols of secrets and hushed things, but I find it impossible to attribute shame. I do find it significant that in the act of “preserving modesty” there is an understanding of utility.

The biggest change I can readily identify in the everyday acceptance of what a leaf symbolises is a change to consider them a nuisance rather than a resource. Plenty of people are very aware just how useful leaf litter is, but the modern preoccupation with sterile tidiness and an insane fear of insurance liability has meant that there also exists a common perception that leaves are a problem. Leaf blowers started cropping up in Ireland in recent years, I’ve found the trend bewildering, to be honest. Very recently I’ve read that the California Air Resources Board reported that “the types of air pollutants emitted when using a gasoline-powered leaf blower for half an hour are equivalent to those emitted from 440 miles of car travel at 30mph average speed”, producing more pollution and in particular more than 26 times as much carbon monoxide than an average car. Parents will allow their child pick up a couple of pretty leaves for the school’s nature table or an art project and then ruthlessly remove all traces of any others. Where fairy stories talk about lost children being blanketed helpfully with leaves to protect them from the elements and the night, kids now are being encouraged to sterlise themselves following the tiniest of contacts.

My tree sheds leaves, I believe my neighbour probably hates me for it. I try to leave the leaves in the back to shelter the sometimes visiting hedgehog that snuffles around polishing off the slugs stretching slimily over the wilderness of things back there. I feel it’s the least I can do for his services. It bothers me that our modern association with leaf is fast becoming “nuisance” after centuries of it being “life”

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