Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
—Philip Larkin, “The Trees” (1967)
The man in this story has recently moved into a new house. The friendly, elderly woman who daily walks her little dog up and down the street in which the house is situated has warned that living in that particular street requires a love of leaves. She says this because on either side of the road are stands of established oaks whose canopies meet and give the street a charm often lacking in suburbia. She says jovially that you cannot have the trees and not the leaves and the man laughs and indicates that he looks forward to the challenge.
And when autumn comes, the fall of leaves does prove truly staggering.
It is a common practice for the residents to restore a sense of order by raking the leaves into large clumps and for these to be either collected by local council trucks or gathered by the residents themselves as useful compost for their gardens.
The man in this story will come to find the raking of these leaves a pastime that allows for an unusual level of reflection. The woman and her little dog will pass often and she and the man will make the sorts of comments that neighbours make about leaves and the raking of them, for instance, how one would not credit there could be so many and how there never seemed to be so many when they were on the trees.
On one of these occasions, the man might have considered mentioning that he had been thinking of Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, and for whom trees gave the impression of not really wanting to exist, yet simultaneously displaying a lack of the wherewithal to kill themselves. He also might have considered mentioning Roquentin’s resentment regarding a tree’s benign acceptance of its lot and its seeming lack of enthusiasm for the rising or diminishing of its sap according to the season. And as an almost final consideration, he might have considered mentioning that he had recently read a poem with the title “Repeat Until Time”, by the English poet Hannah Sullivan, that had seemed privy to this idea of Roquentin’s, for in it she referred to horse chestnuts getting on “tediously with their leaves”.
(Our own protagonist thinks acrostically:
And he likes the way the poet described the trees as dieting throughout winter.)
On this occasion he did not consider quoting Matthew 6:28. Instead he intoned internally—“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” As it turns out, none of the considerations will be mentioned and the woman continues on a short distance further down the street before crossing the road for her return journey, the little dog more urgent than she to challenge the incline of the hill on the way home.
Still raking, the man reflects on the tree that was slammed into while it unenthusiastically stood its ground as the French publisher Michel Gallimard lost control of his luxury car on an icy road in 1960, having convinced his passenger, the writer Albert Camus, into accepting his lift from Provence to Paris rather than take the train. Camus had died instantly. 144 pages of an unfinished manuscript managed to dislodge themselves from his luggage and were blown about before littering the ground over a broad area. The return rail ticket from Provence to Paris lay snugly in one of his jacket pockets. Gallimard died some days later.
It occurs now to the man that Søren Kierkegaard, the so-called “father of existentialism”, had also sped through a landscape with a neatly packed unfinished manuscript (Either/Or) in 1843. While sitting in the railway car, Kierkegaard determined that since his back faced the direction in which the Berlin-bound train was travelling and as he looked through his carriage window at the blur of nearby trees and further off at the clarity of meadows and peopled settlements, he was for all intents and purposes progressively viewing the immediate past. During his journey he decides that our notions of the immediate future must contain a vagueness: for while we may assume that the train on which we travel will not crash or derail and that we will exit as well as enter the next tunnel, we cannot be certain that this will or will not be the case. The problem for philosophy, according to Kierkegaard, was that while we continually look backwards, we ignore the fact that we live in the other direction.
But you can think too much, the man in this story thinks, and then thinks further on Kierkegaard and in particular a story which concerns the Levite who passes a victim of a robbery on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.
In this story, while some distance from the beleaguered man, the traveller had thought the thought that it was a noble thing to assist one who was suffering. He also thought of the positive outcomes such an act of altruism might afford himself. Yet as he got closer, he imagined the possible difficulties that might arise from this and by the time he had reached the bloodied man he had decided to ride on at an increased pace and with fresher thoughts in his mind. For by now he had considered the danger of the road and the possibility that those who robbed this man may lie in wait and also rob him. It was even possible that the victim might misinterpret his assistance as an attempt at further harm. And as he rode on at an even faster pace, the traveller reflected that he had done well to leave the man lying there and that indeed it was best to do nothing.
The man in this story has reached a point where he can stand back and survey three almost waist-high clumps of crisp leaves. He imagines the humus they might become if composted correctly and the consequent benefits to the new garden for which he has a mental plan.
Every now and again a leaf purposefully falls and rests at a seemingly predetermined place on the ground.
Lewis Carroll’s White Queen has somehow come to mind. She says that the one great advantage of living backwards is that “one’s memory works both ways” and that it is “a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”. She says she best remembers things that happen the week after next.
She makes specific mention of a king’s messenger who is in prison and being punished even though, technically speaking, he is yet to commit any crime. When Alice asks, “Suppose he never commits the crime?” the White Queen concludes that this would be the best outcome for all concerned. At this juncture, the White Queen enters into a bout of spontaneous and hysterical screaming. Having regained her composure, she explains the outburst was brought on by ideas of a bleeding finger, the result of pricking herself with a pin in the near future. This pre-experience is seen as a wonderful attribute, for when the accident occurs, the White Queen will remain perfectly regally calm because all of the screaming has been done already.
As far as the man in this story is concerned, the oaks are always regal and calm.
He watches another leaf fall. And then another. And another.
Then another and another.
And one more.
Barry Gillard lives and works in Geelong. His story “The Hard Blue Edge” appeared in the March issue.