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.

About this Poem

“Fallen Leaves” appeared in The American Indian, vol. 2, no. 2 (November, 1927). The poem was later collected in the anthology Changing Is Not Vanishing (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), in which Robert Dale Parker, professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois, remarks, “More than any other poet in this collection, more even than Lynn Riggs, [Mary Cornelia] Hartshorne’s sophisticated sense of the poetic line, with its flexible length and its flexible array of enjambments and caesuras, anticipates the style of later poetry.” Elsewhere, in “American Indian Poetry at the Dawn of Modernism,” published in The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2012), Parker writes, “In ‘Fallen Leaves,’ Hartshorne recalls how she has ‘heard the white sages’ say that her people have lost ‘their hour / Of dominion,’ that their ‘brief time of blooming’ has ‘shattered; / Like the leaves of the oak tree its people are scattered.’ But she also sees that leaves have a rhythm, that they come and go as the seasons change. In effect, she agrees with [Carlos] Montezuma that changing is not vanishing. In that light, like so many [Indigenous] poets, both those who expect Indian people to vanish and those who expect better things, Hartshorne risks predicting the future. In the ‘leaves, soon to be crumpled and broken,’ she also sees ‘the gradual unfolding / Of brilliance and strength.’”