Most leaf-peepers pay too much attention to how leaves look and not enough to how they fall.
Yesterday, the wind was blowing hard from the south and our willow tree, a stubborn holdout this fall, was releasing many of its leaves. Some blew so close to the house that they sliced past the kitchen window, headed downward, in a white-streaked way that made me think of the way some fish will strike shiny things that look nothing like baitfish but which have the right flash.
Like such fishing lures, and like the snowflakes that will succeed the leaves, they fell in spirals. Willow leaves are long and thin and not too stiff; while most went down heavy-end first, a few spun like mill wheels, with their spiral-staircase descent taking much longer. Something in the back of my mind said, “You once read that someone won a paper airplane contest with a simple rectangular piece of paper that lasted longest in the air because it fell in exactly such a steamboat-wheel fashion.”
Snowflakes have unique shapes, but also unique ways of settling to the earth. It’s harder to distinguish the differences in most cases, because the event takes place quickly against a white background, but there are times when snowflakes glom together and fall in small number, and at such times it’s easy to see and enjoy the variations in their spirals.
A lot of plants spiral on the way up, too. Do you remember that William Butler Yeats poem that anticipated the two World Wars, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ re full of passionate intensity.” “The Second Coming” begins with the words, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” “Gyre” was for Yeats a synonym for “spiral;
he was fascinated by spirals, considering them a key to the progressions of history. Our personal growth was like going up a spiral staircase, he thought: we go over and over the same ground, but each time gaining from what we have learned. These latter days, of course, we may be more inclined to think of William Carlos Williams’ “The descent beckons/ As the ascent beckoned.”
Not only do falling things descend in spirals, and not only is each spiral slightly different from the others, they differ in ways that can be arranged according to the Law of Large Numbers. Of all the laws under which we live, this is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful, and the most mysterious: it says that enough repetitions of the same phenomenon will fall into a distribution that can be described with “the bell curve.” We are most familiar with the application of this to the results of intelligence tests: a handful will score very, very highly; a few will have very high scores; more will have high scores; most will be in the middle of the pack; and the lower scores will thin out as they approach the lowest scores.
ANYTHING can be described by the Law of Large Numbers. But how? And why? To put it another way, even the more prosaic and seemingly obvious aspect of existence in this universe is at the same time spooky as all hell. Around All Souls and All Saints Days, when summer’s mad rush is done and fall’s dismantling is almost over and things hold still, they start to look strange.
They are. But only if you see them as things, says the Zen Buddhist.