My grandfather told me that beech trees keep their leaves in the winter. I know this to be true through observation, but I cannot say why. From a philosophical standpoint, they cling to sameness. They are old, curmudgeonly men with beards and decrepit shuttered houses with untamable lawns who lack patience for change. I understand this tendency, being a Benjamin Button type myself; I knit, I consume prunes, and I defy progress like any generic young-old person. Once, when I was very small (and at my most Button-like state), I mourned loudly over the loss of our beloved couch cushions, the only couch cushions I had known in my brief existence. Without warning, my cherished friends were tossed into the pickup bed and towed to the transfer station. (This is reminiscent of the part in Animal Farm when the horse is taken to the “glue factory”; as it would happen, little Button-me was familiar with this scene due to an unfortunate VHS mix up at the local library.) Clearly in need of some semblance of constancy, the beech, sanctified by my Papa’s confidence, became an enduring symbol of stability in my cognizance.
Autumn is characterized by campfire colors and robust plaids accented with flutters and wisps of wannabe birds flitting to earth. I used to believe my partiality to fall was inherited from birthday remembrances; however, fourth-grade trauma induced by neighborhood villains ravaging balloons and a more recent (and poorly timed) romantic termination disprove this hypothesis. Fall is still beautiful.
Fall is beautiful, but it is fleeting. Once the leaves “turn”, their friends follow suit and leave gluttonous out-of-state peepers with the carcasses of their ornamentation. These are the deciduous trees, of course; the coniferous variety are much more reliable. Yet, we are never satisfied with what is readily given.
I have a photo of an elderly cobalt convertible cushioned by an orange maple awning, the only vehicle in an otherwise empty cemetery parking lot. Beyond that convertible is a columbarium, a tiny building and a word that I discovered on the internet a moment ago. Here, my boyfriend chastises me for rapping on the door of an urn. My cheeks darken to compliment the foliage, but he takes my hand somewhere outside the frame, perhaps in REM. Beyond this photo, we do not exist; neither do the leaves.
It is dependably (approximately) Labor Day when the leaves begin to dress the ground in crunchy decoration, as if adhering to conventional paid time off. This Labor Day, the air of no-return sifted through needles and lapped napes of a haphazard hiking troupe. The multilingual crew of mostly men and one small girl-woman (me) noted something Blair-witchy about the woods as they entered it, causing the oldest member to regret stowing his pocketknife in his glove compartment. Our wariness was justified: a disturbingly friendly garden gnome adorned a small shrine at the trail entrance, followed by randomly placed statues along the path. Considering this threat, our comfort food of conversational topics included deadly Guatemalan zoology, a trans-national journey ending in divorce, and the likelihood of being utterly lost.
Eventually, the trail came to a small pond, ideal for selfie taking and saltine-soothed meditation. My friend pointed to the tree behind me.
“What do you call that?”
To my delight, he pointed directly at a slender trunk with toothy ridged leaves, which I happily identified.
“No,” one of his colleagues disagreed, “I think he is talking about the statue.”
I took in the tenth red-capped man to make our acquaintance today and winced at strangers’ affinity for horror.
“That would be a gnome,” I offered, slightly less enthusiastically.
“That tree is certainly a spruce,” our mutual friend chirped circularly from a few feet away, a minute late to the conversation. After laughter, the first friend asked, “What is the difference between elves and gnomes?”
It was the last weekend of a seemingly endless summer and I, at the pinnacle of my education and professionalism, could not answer this question. (For anyone interested, the internet describes elves as tiny humans and gnomes as tiny old men.) Had I answered, my response would have been irrelevant. It did not matter what was said then, nor did it matter that I had just met two of this party who I likely would never meet again. We had asked the great questions in the presence of a beech, and it, surely, would remember us.