Waiting for the Right Leaf

Fall is a good time for watching leaves fall.

Everyone knows that.  But did you know that leaves – specifically Maple tree leaves – have very specific patterns of falling to the ground.  (Apologies to that insurance company.)The image below captures one of the most unusual forms of leaf drop among Maples, in my humble opinion.  Well, actually, more than an opinion – my statement is based on the empirical evidence derived from several hours of observation.  You may think I have too much time on my hands, but patience and photography go hand in hand.  And choosing to wait purposely to uncover Nature’s designs sure beats aimlessly anticipating the arrival of some mysterious person named Godot.  (Great play by Samuel Beckett btw.)  

Below the image is a discourse on how I captured this photo as well as a possibly tedious treatise on different ways leaves reach the ground.  After scouting out the scene days earlier in Ward Pound Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, I chose a perfectly clear crisp fall day and arrived about two o’clock to set up.  I wanted to be ready for late afternoon sun to cast its magical glow on the Maple’s orange leaves and reflect the beautifully textured rocks in the wall.  But to make the image special I was hoping to add just one leaf falling on its way to the ground to contrast with the thousands already there.  And wouldn’t it be great if the leaf were a fully familiar frontal view of the five points of a Maple leaf.While I was waiting for the light, I started looking at how the leaves were falling from the tree.  (You can observe a lot just by watching.)

 I began to see recognizable, repeating patterns of leaf descent: five basic configurations of flight to be specific. In still air the most frequent type are Floaters, defined as falling mostly straight down, the leaf back facing the ground with little or no horizontal circular movement.  They may wobble a bit but the back is always to the ground.  I theorize these leaves are mostly symmetrically shaped with the five points of the leaf slightly curved upward to provide airborne stability.  They have very short stems.

The next type are the Tumblers.  As the name suggests they flutter down, back and front of the leaves trading places on their journey down.  Interestingly they mostly fall straight down or maybe at an angle, but if at an angle, the path directly follows and maintains the angle.  Tumblers probably don’t have equally sized leaf points or are deformed in some way I believe.

Then there are Twirlers – kind of like Floaters but they tend to spin on their axis, keeping their backs to the ground and often form tight circles in their descent.  Reminds me of those colorful spinning plastic things on a stick we had as kids.My favorites are the Sailors, which are like Floaters, but they are reluctant to reach the ground.  Instead they steadily weave their way back and forth, much like gliders but without the updrafts to keep them up.  They can stay aloft for as much as ten seconds.  Their major identifying structure is a very long stem, which acts like a leading rudder, and they tend to be among the larger and broader leaves.

But the rarest of all Maple leaf falls are the Stones, ones that plummet straight down, stem pointing to the ground, face to the camera, points outstretched.  The one that I waited hours for.  The perfect leaf.  For you empirical types out there who might want to try and replicate my observations, remember they only apply to Maples – you’ll have to gather your own data on Oaks, Hickories, Tulips, Birches, etc.  And the air has to be completely still – wind of course can cause wonderful leaf dropping entropy.  In a breeze you might find Floaters occasionally twirling a bit and Sailors taking a disorderly tumble now and then.  Either way if you’re lucky enough to be sitting by a window today with a view to some trees bathed in light, take a moment and watch Fall falling.  It’s satisfyingly hypnotic.