Gardening Fall Color

This undated photo shows a Japanese maple tree in Tillson, N.Y. The bold red of this Japanese maple reflects not only the tree's genetics but also autumn weather, with sunny days and cool nights bringing out the best in the leaves. (Lee Reich via AP) ORG XMIT: NYLS301

Every year, from early autumn through midwinter, our giant sycamore drops a steady blizzard of brown. Thousands of leaves the size of saucers fall from the sycamore’s limbs, burying the lawn so deeply that we despair of digging ourselves out. Some leaves get mulched, others are raked into piles, and others accumulate like snow drifts along the fence. Quite a few, I’m sorry to say, end up with my neighbors.

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A yard man helps us with the leaf drop, but a dozen more like him couldn’t completely handle the aerial onslaught that begins shortly after Labor Day. He’s quietly suggested that maybe the sycamore is more trouble than it’s worth. But we put up with the sycamore for the wide shade it throws on hot summer days — and its broad, sheltering presence throughout the year. Living beneath something so huge is a humbling daily reminder that maybe I’m not as important as I think I am.

At the bottom of January, about the time my birthday arrives, the tree is finally empty of leaves. In the early years at our place, I didn’t like seeing the tree’s big, bare canopy on my birthday. Its starkness seemed like a potent reminder of mortality, something no one really wants to think about as they get another year older.

With age, though, I’m coming to see the emptiness of the tree not as a rebuke but an invitation. Scanning the limbs as I sipped coffee the other morning, I enjoyed being able to see what most of the year lies hidden behind a thick curtain of green.

Birds, for one thing, reveal themselves with vivid clarity along the leafless branches, silhouetted like notes on a musical score as they perch up high, waiting to dive down and raid my feeders. By spring, the tree will be shrouded again in new vegetation — the chickadees, cardinals and finches once more concealed in their secret society.

I see, too, a few ragged squirrels’ nests. They’re messy, as everything about a squirrel is messy, looking like laundry hampers thrown together in a kindergarten craft class.

Mostly, what the empty tree shows is the sky — gray on many mornings this month, with ashen-faced clouds that move across the horizon as solemnly as an armada.

What the tree tells me, when I bother to think about it, is that a little emptiness can be a good thing, creating the space to see more clearly, to breathe more deeply, to savor the light flooding a spot once marked only by shadows.

It’s why I’m trying, as I enter another year of middle age, to find other empty places in my life — maybe a few minutes not claimed by a clock or a calendar, or the pleasure of a closet shelf free of what I no longer need. That kind of emptiness, I’ve been too slow to discover, can be the best abundance of all.

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