Fallen Leaves

An Indian Grandmother’s Parable

Many times in my life I have heard the white sages,
Who are learned in the knowledge and lore of past ages,
Speak of my people with pity, say, “Gone is their hour
Of dominion. By the strong wind of progress their power,
Like a rose past its brief time of blooming, lies shattered;
Like the leaves of the oak tree its people are scattered.”
This is the eighty-first autumn since I can remember.
Again fall the leaves, born in April and dead by December;
Riding the whimsied breeze, zigzagging and whirling,
Coming to earth at last and slowly upcurling,
Withered and sapless and brown, into discarded fragments,
Of what once was life; dry, chattering parchments
That crackle and rustle like old women’s laughter
When the merciless wind with swift feet coming after
Will drive them before him with unsparing lashes
’Til they are crumbled and crushed into forgotten ashes;
Crumbled and crushed, and piled deep in the gulches and hollows,
Soft bed for the yet softer snow that in winter fast follows
But when in the spring the light falling
Patter of raindrops persuading, insistently calling,
Wakens to life again forces that long months have slumbered,
There will come whispering movement, and green things unnumbered
Will pierce through the mould with their yellow-green, sun-searching fingers,
Fingers—or spear-tips, grown tall, will bud at another year’s breaking,
One day when the brooks, manumitted by sunshine, are making
Music like gold in the spring of some far generation. 
And up from the long-withered leaves, from the musty stagnation,
Life will climb high to the furthermost leaflets.
The bursting of catkins asunder with greed for the sunlight; the thirsting
Of twisted brown roots for earth-water; the gradual unfolding
Of brilliance and strength in the future, earth’s bosom is holding
Today in those scurrying leaves, soon to be crumpled and broken.
Let those who have ears hear my word and be still. I have spoken.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on November 11, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.