Hitchhiker – A Leaf in the Carriage

By Corinne H. Smith

When I go to the river the day after the principal fall of leaves … I find my boat all covered, bottom and seats, with the leaves of the Golden Willow under which it is moored, and I set sail with a cargo of them rustling under my feet. If I empty it, it will be full again to-morrow. I do not regard them as litter, to be swept out, but accept them as suitable straw or matting for the bottom of my carriage. ~ Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”

The last time I visited Thoreau Farm in Concord, I parked my car in the lot behind the house. As usual, I left both front windows open several inches. Then I spent a few hours chatting with the visitors who came to see the house where Henry was born.

When I was ready to leave later, I opened the driver’s side door and spied something gold sitting on my seat.

It was a common enough-looking leaf, and I couldn’t immediately identify it. It had a pretty basic shape with very serrated edges. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought any tree guidebooks with me on this trip.

I looked around for the most likely sender of this gift. In the thicket right in front of my car grew a skinny tree with distinctive bark that resembled a layer of burnt potato chips. Burnt chips, B.C., Black Cherry. (This is a shorthand acronym used in outdoor education lingo.) I looked at the leaf again and thought, Yes, this does look like a black cherry leaf, and it must have come from that tree. I put it aside for safe keeping. I figured I could look at it later and remember where it came from, anytime I wanted to. I gave the tree a nod of thanks before I got into the car and turned the ignition.

Wouldn’t this be a great way to collect leaves? Just keep your car windows open and let them blow inside. I thought of Henry’s rustling boatload, as he described what he found in “Autumnal Tints.” (This is a wonderful essay that you should read sometime in the next few weeks.) If gathering fallen leaves in such a large but unusual container was good enough for Henry and his “carriage,” it could work for us, too.

Since then, I have left my car windows open a few inches every day: wide enough for leaves, and narrow enough to thwart thieves. (It’s probably good that we haven’t had much rainfall lately, too.) I must not be parking close enough to any other friendly and sharing trees, however. No other leaves have blown into my car. I’m almost disappointed. But the absence of any others makes this lone black cherry leaf even more special.

Thoreau teaches us to take joy in simple things. I see this as the moral to this simple story.

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