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The Philosophy of Leaves

By Rachel D. Levy, Contributing Opinion Writer
Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column “The Experiment of Life” appears on alternate Mondays.

Every day, I wake up to the same tree peeking at me through my windows. As if on cue, each morning it comes to life with a burst of wind and greets me with a cheerful wave of its branches like it’s welcoming me into the excitement of a new day. As the leaves began to glow orange in the spirit of the season over the past few weeks, the tree reminded me of the philosophical quality that falling leaves seem to have.

Fall is, without a doubt, one of my favorite times of year (though I can imagine that to pick a favorite season would be like choosing a favorite child). Having grown up in South Florida, I was a virgin to foliage until moving to Cambridge, unaware of how the psychedelic explosion of colors and romance of falling leaves could have the capacity to stir previously unearthed emotions and creativity. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be caught in a whirlwind of spinning leaves you can perhaps understand what I mean; among that tornado of dancing embers, it feels only natural to want to spin, too. It’s the only time of year you can waltz with Mother Nature in this way.

For me, it’s during these months that I’m the most reflective. As the leaves detach themselves from their mother trunks and toddle relaxedly through the air, my thoughts too wander far from their home base. I see the falling debris swept up with gusts of wind, left to tenderly drift through the air, and I can’t help but think each of the trees is performing an encore to end what has been a fabulous show. With winter in sight, they execute one final song to embrace us in an all-encompassing symphony of blazing colors, whispering branches, and descending leaves.

Most excitedly, they include us in this show. What is fall without the sound of leaves crunching beneath our boots? I always feel like those crunches are invitations to dance; the trees asking us to be their partners as they swirl and twist with the breeze.

These few weeks of autumn are a time of transition. Right now, all around us, life is turning to death and I’m always caught off guard to realize how gorgeous this natural transformation is meant to be.

We’re always told to fear the aging process, to enjoy our youth before the senility of old age creeps upon us. Aging is grossly and wrongly associated with slowness. As if to slow down would be so unbearable, anyway. In a society that falsely measures the worth of its individuals in terms of use, those past a certain age are robbed of their humanhood.

What could be the most celebratory, intimate, and reflective phase of life has turned into something so many people fear and try to suppress. Menageries of marketing campaigns promote anti-aging beauty products promising to replace aging skin with the false glow of youth. I see it as a shame to cover the marks left on a body; we’re told to cover the art a well-lived life has left on our skin, to be ashamed of the lines left by a lifetime of laughing and crying.

Contrasting our collective fear of death is the calmness with which the trees I see around me now have in entering their final stage of life. Fall is sure of its place; quiet in its actions and reflective of self. While playing in the park during this time of year, young children juxtapose themselves among the fallen leaves. Life mixes with death, fertility plays in the surprising warmth of decomposition.

I wish there was a way to collectively reframe what it means to grow old. It’s a sublime phase of life deserving of pleasure, philosophical thought, and connection. It represents the coming back home of a person to themselves; a time to look back on a life lived and understand what it all has meant and what it can continue to mean from this point forward. It can be the pinnacle of existence; in the same way that the leaves around us are peaking in color, those entering the Winter of life are more often than not peaking in their own love, creativity, and vitality as well.

Aging of the body does not connote aging of the spirit. With the decline of the earthly vices and the responsibilities that often accompany those younger years, the spirit is finally given room to expand. Without the constriction imposed by the duties inherent to being young, a person can do away with the world’s judgment of them and, more importantly, expectation for them. Freedom during aging comes in having the wisdom to give more worth to the increased spiritual strength than to the decreased physical ability that accompanies those years.

So as I watch the friendly tree outside of my dorm room shed its leaves, I liken it to a composer instructing an orchestra through a bittersweet decrescendo. It dances and sings, contagious with its own love of life. The scars on its trunk mark places where branches used to be and offer a shallow glimpse into its lifetime of experiences.

It makes me hope that when it comes time to shed my own leaves and enter Winter, I do so with the grace of trees I see around me now. I dream my final song is as all-consuming as the symphony of Fall, and if it's just a mere echo, I’ll be proud even of that.

Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column “The Experiment of Life” appears on alternate Mondays.

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