Wednesday, August 24, 2011


One of my earliest memories is that of the wind moving in leaves that were just turning color and falling outside the window of my home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This was a rather commonplace event, but, for me, it was a kind of moment plucked from Time, and I’ve held the moment as precious throughout the years.

Today, as I wait for a call from California to announce the birth of my second great-grandchild, I watch the yellow leaves fall from one of the ubiquitous yellow poplar trees on the Cumberland Plateau. A crow, stationed on a dead limb nearby, watches and waits with me. For us, the falling leaves symbolize the end of summer at Sewanee and the beginning of a new human life.

The tall yellow poplar in my yard reminds me of my own aging – as if the status of great-grandmother doesn’t provide enough support for the idea of aging! The tall yellow poplar’s trunk is thick and deeply furrowed like wrinkled skin and its bark is aged gray. Timber beetles often enter its sapwood, but the old poplar is unusually free from serious disease.

Here on the Plateau, some yellow poplars attain 42 inches in diameter, and one specimen near St. Luke’s Hall on the campus of the University of the South boasts a special name plate. According to Stephen Puckette and co-authors of Comparative Description of the Native Trees of the Sewanee Area, the yellow poplar is the “greatest in stature of any of the trees on the Plateau, or anywhere in Tennessee.” This fact supports my own respect for these tall trees rising in the morning mists.

Every year, just as we arrive at Sewanee for our Spring and Summer sojourn, the yellow poplar’s flowers bloom – from April-June – and provide nectar for honey bees, but its fruits mature in September when we’re preparing to leave the Plateau. Our yellow poplar trees are joined by white oak, persimmon, hickory, and dogwood trees, and they create a small forest facing our living room window where I can watch leaves fall. I also collect a few specimens to keep indoors on my desk and sometimes write poems about them.

Naturally, the twigs and branches of the yellow poplar provide a feast for our brazen white-tailed deer that browse among the stand at the edge of our yard. Squirrels scurry among the poplar’s branches, and rabbits sometimes nibble at the buds and seedlings. Blue jays, chickadees, and woodpeckers find cover in the trees unless my possessive crow friends chase them away.

No one has showed up with a buzz saw yet, but the yellow poplar is frequently cut down and used in the making of furniture and musical instruments. I’m not going to tell my son-in-law, Brad, about these backyard beauties because he loves varieties of wood and is a consummate furniture maker. He visits with us most summers, and one of his favorite observation posts is on the front porch facing the woods!
The yellow leaves continue to fall as I wait for the emergence of my second great-grandchild. I have lined up six of the colorful leaves on the dining room table, as if to symbolize the father, grandfather, two grandmothers, great-grandmother, and uncle who sit in the waiting room of a Los Angeles hospital, praying for a safe delivery.

I think that my great-granddaughter’s birthday will probably be remembered as “the time of the yellow leaves.”

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