Friday, November 15, 2013

Leaves Fall, and I Recall Thoreau's Meditation on the Etymology of the Word "Leaf"

Thoreau says (somewhere) in Walden,"No wonder that earth expresses itself outwardly with leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly." I copied the quote down and made notes on it so many years ago, I've forgotten the precise page on which Thoreau makes this observation.

I never fail to remember Thoreau's brilliant insight each year as the bright leaves fall--as they weep and sigh from trees to which they were joyfully united spring through summer, to give new life to the same trees by joining with the ground. Thoreau links the words "leaf" and "lapse." 

And as he also points out in this passage, "leaf" and "lapse" are etymologically linked to "lobe" and "labor" as well: sand falls into lobes, he says, and leaves reflect the shape of the leafy lobes we see on the beach, as the body itself falls into similar leafy lobes in all its organs when it develops in the womb. All these words derive, Thoreau notes, from the Greek λαιβω, from which we receive a whole array of words (and ideas) ranging from the Latin labor to the Latin lapsus. All having to do with the notion of flowing or slipping downward . . . .

To say that these musings mean something to me each year as fall (leaves fall) arrives would be an understatement. It's a reminder to me that no leaf sprouts forth with its fuzzy virid promise without nature intending that this promise end in fall. Leaves are the green upraised palms of an entire tree lifting itself to the sun all summer long. They exist to bring the force of vivid sunlight into the tree and so to cause it to live and to grow.

But they serve that purpose with the intent of falling, of being discarded, of becoming redundant--of serving the tree and its green force in quite a different way after their fall by becoming humus beneath the tree, from which its roots absorb the sweet life of the leaf transmuted now to minerals and compost in the ground. 

The human body is also designed to work this way, Thoreau insists. Our entire life is a falling, a slipping downward, a pouring forth as leaves are poured forth--as our labor expresses (literally, from its Latin roots, "pushes out" as in giving birth) our inmost self, our inward thoughts and intentions, in outward actions that affect those around us.

This is not, I think, a dismal understanding of what human life and the life of the natural world are all about. It's definitely a lapsarian understanding, and in that sense, it has much to do with Augustinian theology, and perhaps with the later Calvinist expression of that theology--and certainly with Pauline theology from which Augustinian theology derives much of its framework. 

It is definitely a theology closely akin to Hopkins's thought in "Spring and Fall": the blight Margaret is born for is to grieve over Goldengrove unleaving. Because in the unleaving of all the golden groves around us each fall, we sense our own fall, our own demise, our own lifelong chthonic journey back to the earth from which we first rose up.

But the theological insight to which Thoreau is pointing with his connection of leaf to lapse to lobe to labor is also this, it seems to me: we exist to fall towards others, to fall on behalf of others. We exist to give ourselves to other in labors of love in which we pour ourselves forth for the sake of others. 

We are, as Hopkins thought, made to fall. And this may be an occasion for mourning, since in Adam's fall we sinned all.

But it's also an occasion for celebration, since, as Paul repeatedly reminds us throughout his writings, the nature of God, in whose nature we're made as humans, is a nature that's all about continual pouring out, continual falling towards, continual laboring on behalf of. And so in falling, we emulate the Godhead in which love so much abounds that the persons of the Trinity pour themselves forth continuously in love so pungent with life that this love cannot be contained within the trinitarian community, but pours itself forth in labor to produce the cosmos. Paul's trinitarian theology is premised on the notion that it is the very nature of God to seek to pour the love of the Godhead down into the cosmos and pull the whole created world into the same cycle of pouring-forth, falling-down, giving-for love that is the force that moves the cosmos.

A sermon each falling leaf preaches to us each fall, if we but have ears to hear it . . . . 

The beautiful photo of fallen leaves in Maryland is by Mark Schellhase, who has generously made it available for sharing through Creative Commons at Wikimedia.

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