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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: The last leaf to fall

by Mike Masterson | November 22, 2020 at 9:12 a.m.

Years ago I wrote about watching the last remaining leaf break free from the top of its towering tree. This is an edited version of that column which, while originally published in 1997, remains as pertinent today.

I'd driven to a point near Beaver Lake and gotten out to enjoy a brief winter warm spell that had settled over northwest Arkansas.

Gazing upward, I noticed the lone leaf fluttering in the breeze on the highest branch of the tallest tree. The tenacious little thing had managed to hold fast through weeks of rain and frigid winds.

As I watched, the brown, feathery leaf suddenly disconnected before my eyes and began its twirling graceful dance toward the ground. It initially sailed sideways, then momentarily upward, then in slow arcing circles until settling beneath the tree.

It struck me at that instant just how much of nature's wonder was revealed in this common experience that repeats itself all around us billions of times each year.

In early spring, this aged tree had been covered with thousands of tiny buds, each of which had sprouted to unfold into lime-green leaves that steadily matured and darkened as summer evolved.

By sometime in June, every leaf had achieved its greatest potential, opening to accept and photosynthesize the light that ensured the tree's survival.

They were shimmering and pliant in those midsummer months, capable of withstanding the most rampaging storm. But each leaf's destiny did not lie in the fleeting strength of midlife vibrancy. As with all of life, each was readily expendable.

The leaves were fleeting segments of a greater whole in the host trees that replenish their decorative coverings year after year until the trees themselves one day will fall to the ground.

And so the leaf I studied that afternoon had lived half a year in its penthouse perch and remained after all those that had budded alongside it months earlier had taken flight when fall winds began to sweep them away.

For me, the glory for any leaf, and the goal toward which it grows from the moment it appears, must be the opportunity to finally separate from the twig that had bound it firm. Its joy, if a leaf could feel, undoubtedly would be to experience those few seconds where it could dance wildly at the whim of the breezes.

This moment of release was the only opportunity each leaf would have to realize the feeling of sailing unfettered after its lifetime of confinement. For those few precious seconds this leaf I watched could express itself in the way in which it twirled away from the limbs.

Once settled into the earth near the trunk that had hosted its life, this leaf along with all the others would still continue in a different way to nourish the buds to emerge in Aprils to come.

Today, as we children of the great world war are in the autumn of our own lives, much as the final leaf I watched, we will begin to disconnect one by one to make our final individual journeys back to the dust from whence we sprang.

Our colors and baby boomer physical forms also are noticeably altered from the greener years. The shade of our hair is changing. Our eyes and hearing have diminished. There are more wrinkles and bulges and indications that the vigor and boundless energy we knew just yesterday when life was April green are now but recorded memories.

Back in our 13th, or 21st or 33rd year, we couldn't fathom leaving. Falling away from the life we knew was the furthest thing from our youthful minds as we focused on creating families, lives and careers in the decades ahead.

Today, however, we share the morning chill of mid-autumn. We've come to realize the moment of our disconnection and free fall is all too real. Others we have known already have made the trip.

The leaf I watched that late winter afternoon could not know it would be the last of its group to set sail. While we never know when our moment to soar will arrive--and for many still in the greenest of life that time comes much too soon--we understand it's part of life's cycle, reflected in an event as common as the last leaf to spiral from its tree.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at


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