One night I dreamt I was standing at a large window looking toward a wide-canopied Maple tree. Its leaves were young, green, and wide. Each leaf clung to the tree’s manifold system of branches and limbs by a tender, strong stem. An afternoon breeze lifted them in the sunlight and calmed them with its absence. As I stood in the window, a gale of wind rushed across the ground like a furious, foaming wave crashing a beach. The invisible tide rushed up the trunk dispelling itself in all directions about halfway up the tree. Every leaf shook like the wet hands of children too impatient for a towel. The wave escaped the branches and the leaves calmed. 

From the west came a cloud, dark as a grave. Rolling and rumbling over and into itself, it assaulted the country beneath it with flashes and torrents of violence. It swallowed the tree like a great creature. “Surely there’s nothing left but a jagged stump?” I thought.  But as my eyes adjusted, I noticed the leaves flapping and glistening in the deluge. They held to their stems like a boy to his father. The great creature released the tree, and plodded over my window. Running to a window on the other side of the room, I watched it march across the countryside. When I returned to the tree, the sun graced it with warmth. A wisp of cool air calmed and dried the leaves.

I stood for what seemed like a season. Sunsets followed sunrises. Gentle rain occasionally settled the dust. Squirrels and insects scurried and climbed among the leaves. Butterflies lilted in and out of sight. A universe of life and sounds made the tree home. When night fell the leaves calmed and shone in the glow of the Summer moon. 

One morning, as the first shards of light broke the eastern horizon, I saw a change. The leaves appeared lighter in color. As the wind shifted, I heard a dry rustling. I left the room through a door to my right and walked out under the canopy. By the time I arrived, the colors had changed even more. A single leaf fell on my shoulder. I reached for it, marveling at the structure of its underside; vascular, fibrous, holding what seemed to be 10 different shades of blending colors in its drying, crinkling skin. Turning it over, I froze. There, in a bold, handwritten font, was my father’s name. I read it over and again like a verse being committed to memory. “What is this….?” Looking up, I saw every leaf was inscribed with a name. Every name was in a different handwritten font. First, I only saw names of people I knew and loved. Then, I saw names buried deep in the folds of my memory from all stages of life. Beyond these were millions of names I had never heard. Dispersed throughout the multitudes were the names of world leaders, artists, singers, athletes, public figures . Upon this closer look I could see that all of the leaves were unique and at different stages of color. Some were light lime green, some orange or yellow. Some were brown. None were the deep, rich green from before. And, all of them were changing. Staring up into them, I became immersed in a giant, transforming kaleidoscope. I lowered my eyes to regain my focus and caught a familiar name holding to its stem at eye level. It was my name. Then, a voice behind me spoke.

“Son, all people, at all times, have held this tree as their source. The beautiful, the homely, the famous, the wealthy, the poorest, the depraved, the faithful, the strong, the young and inspired, the old and inspiring, the elite, the murderous, the erudite and the ignorant, poets and carpenters, warriors and lovers….all began here, in this place. Seasons have changed them. Storms have consumed them. Winds have shaken them. Sunlight has warmed them.  Some will hold longer than others…some will fall while young and strong…some hold on until they become a sliver of crisp clinging to a branch. But, know this, none of them have lived or fallen without my knowledge. Generations have descended, becoming, once again, the dust from whence they came; taking their part an unlikely and mysterious partnership—the extravagantly profound union of life and death…

…life bringing death bringing life bringing death bringing life…

This is nature’s hidden-in-plain-sight revealing of atonement. Salmon and Mayflies give their lives immediately for the births of their young. They are not unique. Consider the cattle on your hills or the fruits of your garden. Read the name on the leaf in your hand. Your father’s life and death, alike, were foundations for your life and of your living. Someday you will complete the cycle for your children. No creature, plant, or human that has lived has done so without the death of another. When all lost lives are found—all things made new again—the price will be the farthermost loss of all. Remember, as you live within this moment of living and dying, rejoicing and grieving, this price is already paid. Though you weep here in the Autumn of Names, do not forget to rejoice in the Spring of Life.”

Hunter Smith
October 12th, 2023

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