Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas

Practitioners of transcendental meditation possess a personal mantra which repeated over and over allows the chanter to quickly reach a state of tranquility or peace.  I have never had the fortitude nor the discipline to meditate, but I do have a personal mantra; leaves. Broad leaves from deciduous trees in particular.  

The season is important. Early in spring, just after bud break when the new leaves are fresh, soft and a vivid green.  Midsummer when the green has darkened and the surfaces have expanded to provide shade from a sun high in a pale sky.  The reds, yellows and oranges of autumn.  Dry leaves hanging on limbs, falling and building deep piles on the ground.  I have favorites. Box elders in the river canyons of Utah, maples and birch on the coast of Maine, sycamores along dry creek beds in the coast range of California, aspens painting a Colorado slope and cottonwoods planted as windbreaks in the vineyards of central Chile.  Leaves impress me.

I love trees, the bark, the trunks, the limbs and the roots. Bark, whether smooth and paper thin or thick and gnarled, protecting, peeling and cracking, shedding and stretching to accommodate growth.  Trunks and limbs, the framework of the tree, the structure which pushes the tree upward toward sunlight.  The roots, a solid anchor, keeping the tree firmly in its world while finding minerals and water for the tree to grow and reproduce. The entire tree is a work of art, but leaves speak to me.

Like bark, roots, limbs and the trunk; leaves must work, turning sunlight into energy, pulling carbon dioxide from the air and returning oxygen and water vapor.  The function of leaves is spectacular, but it is not what sets them apart.  Leaves and the play of sunlight, color and shadow animate and give life to trees. Leaves have the power to change my emotions, to alter my moods. The leaves of an aspen, birch or cottonwood shimmering in the afternoon sun as the union of light and wind create a magical performance.  The contrast of a deep red maple against the dark green of a conifer forest or the vivid green of box elder and cottonwood leaves along the bright red canyon walls of slot canyons in Utah are memories not easily forgotten.  Sycamore leaves in fall turning red and drying to a dusky brown as they finish the work of a long California summer are sad, but inspirational.  The red, orange and yellow leaves of autumn die and drop, announcing the coming winter.  Deciduous leaves provide benchmarks for our progress through the seasons. Leaves possess the ability to change and alter my perspective. Leaves breaking from buds in spring bring optimism, the bright green of new growth and shimmer of leaves in the wind bring joy, the contrast of red leaves against green evokes surprise and the tapestry of fall colors inspire awe.  Falling leaves on a sunny, cold day produce sweet melancholy that is sad, but also healing.

On a crisp autumn afternoon in northern New Mexico along a road coming out of the high desert and entering the village of El Rito, leaves had an especially profound affect.  A ninety degree turn on the highway brought us onto the main street where the road ran between two adobe walls with rows of cottonwoods planted behind each.  Low sunlight filtered through the orange and gold leaves and cast quivering shadows on the ground.  Leaves fell silently and slowly to the ground where the wind piled them against the downwind wall.  Behind the adobe walls the battered village stood as a testament to the difficult realities of life in rural New Mexico, but leaves and the low, soft autumn sunlight created a scene of beauty and a sense of comfort and renewal.

Our trip to New Mexico was taken at a time of personal loss and was an attempt to find hope and heal.  The rawness of my emotions combined with this timeless view of El Rito, gave me the strength to come to terms with our loss.  We tried to capture the moment on film, but as with all scenes that are a combination of both emotion and landscape the results were disappointing.  The pictures have been lost, but what has not been forgotten or even eroded was the impact of that healing scene. The autumn cottonwoods of El Rito also helped to solidify leaves as my personal mantra.