From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
In Athens, Ga., late autumn of 1988, butter was growing on trees.
At least that’s what it looked like. I had never paid attention to ginkgo trees. Ginkgo leaves, to be more specific. Had never seen this many together at one time. But in Athens, they stood in quiet golden efficiency from street to street, singly in rows or grouped in bands of three or four, and they lined the University of Georgia campus like expertly spaced co-eds, striking individually and overwhelming as a whole, with locks of butter-blonde.
My eyes caught them the weekend before their leaves fell, all at once as they do, leaving around the trunk a puddle of maple yellow. I caught them just before their fall, and hope I never forget the sights of that mid-November day, of all that glowing yellow against a sky blue as a baby blanket.
Investigation suggested the ginkgo to be a fascinating life form in more ways than its beauty: botanists say it’s the only living species of its kind to have survived for the past 250 million years. A ginkgo fossil from then looks like a ginkgo leaf from last fall. It’s a survivor; I like to have survivors around.
Finally this year I bought one, and planted it in our back yard two weeks before Christmas. It’s only 10 feet tall, and bare. Its backdrop has been mostly gray and cold. But I’ve waited 25 years; I can wait a few more months. No one cares anyway, except me.
Or that’s what I’d thought.
Two weeks after I planted it, I opened the “Photo of the Month,” a mass email from Neil Johnson, one of our favorite photographers. A working man. Neil cares as an artist will, and sometimes Neil will even write a story with the photo, to say “how” it happened. In detail. Those are my favorites. I enjoy knowing how people did stuff. “How did he DO that?” Now and then, Neil will tell you.
A ballerina. A soprano. A landscape or an armadillo. Shapes and shadows, light, and sometimes movement in the stillness.
But not so often will he have a photo of a single leaf. But he did on this day, the early stages of a frostbitten winter. He had a picture of a single leaf. A single leaf from a ginkgo tree. (Yes!)
It made me feel better then because it was cold and I’d just planted and THAT was what my tree was going to look like. THAT leaf. Times a few hundred. A tree and its leaves, worth the wait.
It makes me feel better today, a month later, only now it’s not the photograph but the words. We’ve lost a lot of good people since Christmas, here in the cold, all of a sudden and all at once, friends of ours. I miss them. It feels all wrong that the leaves should fall.
But they do.
“This leaf symbolizes to me the end of the year, now history with only its memories remaining,” Neil wrote in December, the yellow ginkgo leaf a little velvet street light above his words. “I may pull up to park at my leafless ginkgo tree for a short while, but the tree will not be dead. It will only be resting. Soon, new leaves will pop out and the tree’s growth will continue. Life continues. Hope remains very much alive.
“2014 presents new opportunities, new ideas, new experiences, new projects and new challenges. Time is both a straight line and a circle. We move from birth to death while we witness the cycles of nature. We hold on tightly to earth in an annual ride as the planet once again orbits the sun.
“In the earliest days of photography, some people feared the camera, thinking their spirit would be transferred to the captured image. I photographed this leaf at the moment before it and its last few brethren fell from the ginkgo tree to die. But this was no ordinary leaf. There was no fear in it as it proudly faced my camera at the end of its life.”