The Leaves Smell Like Sunlight

by Betsy Barnum

Going down the wooded path by the river bluff is like entering a green womb -- each step more quiet, darker, more enveloped by green. It smells like earth. The moist enclosure of maple, ash, oak, basswood arches in layers above, lets light through but dimly. The river is just visible through the leaves, its current slow, the surface reflective on this still evening in early summer.

At dusk the fading, diffuse light intensifies the saturated green-yellow of new leaves; it seems to color the air, almost to drip. My footsteps are muffled by the still air and the soft carpet of wood chips and damp leaves. Each step further down, into this earthen womb, this saturated green inner space, is deeper into a world of trees, a green, moist world where tall anchored bodies stretch toward the sky and leaves respond with motion to air currents’ slightest touch. A world where stillness encloses the slow, deep pulsing of trees’ heartbeats, the unceasing rhythm of their wild souls.

In winter the trees are bare, their stark, minimalist shapes dark and stately against the sloping bluff white with snow. When the sap begins to move upward from Earth through their veins in early February, though outwardly nothing has changed, excitement and expectancy move within them, rising, pushing upward. They hum with the joy of that warm liquid energy singing in their veins, and in the cold late afternoon air, after merely touching their rough bark, I can feel it flow singing right into me, heating my insides and oiling my joints for the walk home in late winter darkness. Some days, the pulsing flow seems to swirl up, down and around, the whole bluff awash in its surging joy.

And then, in one week in early May, suddenly all this rising energy bursts forth as leaves, the outer manifestation of a deep Earth-pulsing rhythm that can't be contained, that must rise, must flow, must pour forth and become green and open to the world.

And the newly-born leaves dance with joy in the wind, and spread themselves to the sun, drinking in its rays to turn them into sugar, molecules splitting and reforming and percolating through their tissue, microscopic pores opening and closing, and the green becoming more intense, more full, more saturated each moment. These green pieces of Earth energy, these outward expressions of trees’ passionate joy to be alive, are caught up in the continual miracle of transforming sunlight into life, an ancient dance that renews itself daily in beauty and sacrifice.

On a calm June evening there’s serenity in the trees, but under it a sense of suppressed excitement, a bated breath. The ecstasy of leaves being caressed by sunlight is over for today, the exquisite sensation of photosynthesis. I walk among these trees at sunset, and breathing with them and touching their trunks I know their excitement -- what it is to be a tree in summer, in full display, the joy of being green, inviting and delighting in the sweet caress of sunlight, the exciting stroke of wind, the soothing touch of rain.

Almost every day, somewhere on the path, I find a twig of oak leaves, freshly dropped there like a perfumed handkerchief for me to find, leaves of red oak that I stroke with my fingers and hold to my nose while I draw in a breath, and the scent is sweet, and earthy, and green and moist, and taking it deep into my body I feel my heart quicken, and a warmth spreads through me, and I breathe it in again, and again.

And the leaves smell like sunlight.

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