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Fiona Glen: 'Leaves, Alive and Otherwise'

Published on
Original illustration by Hardeep S Dhindsa

It carpets the pavement softly in uneven tides, like sand swept over the path onto a beach. The same misted green as the underside of mint leaves, this mass of leaves is turning gently to powder, ground down with every journey that two legs make up and down the trail to the local shops. Scuffed, split and splintered with every footfall, the million flakes of leaf with their sharply ragged edges are like the little cut-out negatives from paper-crafting. This powder banks so softly: undulating coasts of it with patches of bare, grainy concrete peeking between. Flour on a work surface. A showering of snow, sawdust, ash. Deathly dry and light as an afterlife.

This spring is so dry that it acts like autumn, felling leaves from parched London Plane trees. Leaves fall, clatter-dry, to a ground as dry as insect casing. The spring became the summer, in fact, without breakthrough or bluster. Without change, it seems. Hot weeks without rain have bled from April to June, and here we are, still circulating the same neighbourhood, still in a gentle suspension, living well but small. We are lucky, if restless; content, if anxious about all the world beyond us. We traipse back and forth from the shop, restocking the bread, coffee and vegetables we plough through in stunningly short periods – a recent collective of six sharing three locked-down meals each day.

I traipse to the shop: my turn. I tread, eyes in the leaf dust as it enters, little by little, through the slit in my right trainer along the ball of my foot. The hole grew month by month until it reached a form of stasis. I wear these favoured trainers deeper into dysfunction. There are the thousands of miles they have carried me through work shifts, foreign cities, nights on festival dancefloors. There are the plastics, labour, airmiles, and profit margins knitted into replacing them – my perfect justification to avoid doing so, letting rain, road slush and leaf dust be chewed into my socks through that strange sideways mouth.

Since we cannot move far, I look closer, paying newfound attention to the tree arching over the communal garden. So upward-reaching – smooth and slender-trunked – I am surprised to learn that it is an oak from the elongated leaves with their rippling edges that tumble under the gate.

My neighbours, the trees, are shedding everything in their thirst. A loss, when heaped leaves should be a victory: a kicking, dancing place. Something to boot through, electrified by the tilting kilter of
the earth. Something to hurl into reanimation: hot-coloured cascades catching in the fuzz of fabric and hair.

Autumn leaves are all hallows returned and harvests harvested, orange vegetables bulging from earth. On wood-smoke and gunpowder nights, in junior school art classes, we learned the clockwork of the trees. Childhood schooled us in the seasons.

Back then, in the years when I was still learning the scent of winter approaching, my stepfather and I would charge into the glen with the skitter-thunder of booted feet on leaf litter. Clattering to a stop in the dip between the path and the riverside, we were relieved to find it still standing each time: a shaggy, oblong-shaped shelter, huddled at the foot of a great tree.

Children wonder about where they will wriggle to amid phantom disasters – how they will survive with cunning and the fellowship of the wild beasts. I imagined volcanoes, floods and mythic wars, never crisis or disease. I was full of the fevered idea of wilderness survival, of living outside. Across the river, the shelter we built magnetised me. We visited regularly, lugging supplies and supports, as if to an elderly relative. We patched the roof with fresh ferns and dashed fallen branches against living timber to form new struts. Surefooted in the knowledge that running was more controlled than lumbering caution, we always crashed down the slopes on our way. But once we stopped. My stepfather held out an arm – crouching – as a family of roe deer ran from the shelter. A doe and three fawns streamed out into the unstill trees, backs rising and falling like waves, hooves nearly soundless over the forest floor thick with leaves.

Leaves only speak in contact with some bodies, or in chorus with the wind. Close your eyes and call it to mind, the familiar throat-singing of the leaves: air setting branches frantic.

Between your fingers, or in that mind’s touch, feel the skin-softness of a leaf. Or its tough, waxy veins. Its hairiness a-bristle with fibres. Its dust rubbed sticky in the grooves of your fingerprints: shaken sage billowing scent. The pastry-soft leaves of the forgotten – wilting, un-watered, sad dog ears curling their edges. The leaves of pot plants in cafes and nightclubs, quietly signifying something. The obedient drape of leaves from office shelves and the false, sharp edges of leaves on the plastic succulents in the dentist’s waiting room. Real leaves swelling with rain, with open pores. Leaves under glass roofs, undisturbed by the elements, and leaves thrashing in storms, under helicopter blades – you know the shot with the lamenting palms, descending into the jungle, Hollywood adventure. The horror, the horror, the woods at night, wet leaves clinging to the white arms of the running woman, leaves rotting black-brown on the cold, dead floor. Leaves thin enough to be blades or needles. Leaves made up of others: wood-pulp soup thinning into paper, leaves slipping out of books. Sheaves of tobacco rolled into cigars and sleeping-bag bundles of aromatic herbs. The fleshy leaves, the leathery leaves, the coin-shaped leaves of money trees, leaves as wide as decadent plates, leaves clashing loud like cymbals, leaves fronded like hair, leaves splayed like fingers. Tea leaves to read, fig leaves to hide, leaves to quake with – or whisper like the leaves, full of secrets and shapes. All those leaves, tumbling like beards, and in the distance, making snaking mirages and hard green mosaics. Scales and songs: all those leaves.

Fiona Glen is a Scottish writer and artist interested in the critical relationships between beings and objects. She is a new graduate of the MA Writing programme at London's Royal College of Art, and has recently been commissioned to create media works for ICA/BBC New Creatives and Robert Young Antiques. Her criticism, essays, and fiction have featured in publications including Aesthetica, NOIT Journal, 3:AM Magazine, and Art & the Public Sphere.