It was one of those spring days that feels like summer in the sunny places and like winter in the shade. The last drifts of dirty snow still hung around as if they would never melt. But the bright sunlight was stirring things into motion. All along the branches of the mighty maple tree, buds were swelling with new life.
Eggs in a nest don't know they are about to turn into birds. And buds don't know that they will open into either green leaves or perfumed flowers. But the round, chubby bud at the very top of the maple tree knew one thing: it was about to burst.
The chubby bud became a bright greenish yellow leaf with five sharp points and veins going every which way. The leaf turned its face to the sun and could feel the warmth from that far-away star. On warm days it even could feel the sun's energy traveling through its veins and into the tree.
On a nearby cherry tree, buds were opening into lovely pale pink blossoms. That made the maple leaf feel flat and uninteresting. "I wish I'd turned into something else," it said to a blossom that was bobbing in the breeze.
"Too bad for you," said the cherry blossom. "Too bad that every bud can't be a blossom. And that color of yours! What a horrible shade of chartreuse."
"Chartreuse? What's that?" asked the maple leaf.
"Oh, it's probably the most annoying color in the whole world," said the blossom, and then it began chatting with a bee that had come to sip its sweet nectar.
A few days later, the blossom's pedals fell off and drifted away. But the leaf stayed right where it was.
In the sky high above, hawks glided in easy circles. How wonderful that must be, thought the maple leaf, to travel through the air instead of being stuck to a branch.
Just then a breeze came up. The leaf fluttered as if flapping a pair of wings. It felt lighter, for a moment. But the leaf didn't fly an inch.
The maple leaf noticed that the tree was growing what looked like little wings. "You're lucky," it said to one of the wings. "Why don't you fly away?"
"Dumb question," said the wings. "We're stuck to the branch, just like you."
The seeds were not stuck for very long. A few days later, a strong breeze came rushing through the tree and the wings began to fly. They spun in tight circles and floated away. But the leaf could only watch.
"Maybe I have to be older to fly," the maple leaf said to the oriole perched on a nearby nest. "Maybe I'm not quite ready, just like your babies."
The bird dropped the worm it had been carrying in its mouth before answering. "Believe me," it said, "someday all of you leaves will be free from your branches."
"And where do we go?" asked the leaf.
The oriole shrugged its wings. "I migrate when that happens, so I don't really can't tell you."
"What do you mean, migrate?" asked the leaf.
"That means flying away to where it's warmer, before the freezing weather can get you. And now if you will excuse me, I've got some worm hunting to do."
Butterflies of every color began streaming past-blue, red, yellow, black. Again, the leaf felt plain and ordinary. And bugs had been chewing holes in the leaf, making it look shabby and worn out.
A monarch butterfly landed on the branch to rest. "How can you just sit there?" the butterfly said to the leaf. "It's time to store up energy for the big trip to Mexico."
"Mexico?" The leaf looked across the lake. "Is Mexico where those hills are?"
"You must be joking," said the butterfly. "Mexico is two thousand miles from here. Two thousand!"
"Do you know the way?"
"Well, not exactly. But I can sort of feel the right direction. You want to migrate, too? I hear it's sunny and warm down there."
"I'd love to," said the leaf sadly. "But it looks like I've got to stay right where I am. You see, I can flutter but I can't move an inch."
"That's a shame," said the butterfly. And without another word it took off, rose into the air, and joined another couple of other monarchs. The butterflies were handsome, with their orange and black wings.
The maple leaf looked down at its plain green self-and saw that something had changed. There were bold, brilliant splotches of orange and scarlet!
"Where on earth did these lovely colors come from?" the leaf asked out loud.
The oriole happened to be sitting nearby. "The colors come from you," it said. "Happens every fall. I should know. I make my nests in this maple year after year."
"Remarkable," the leaf said. "Quite remarkable." The other maple leaves had been looking at themselves, too. There were surprised Ooohs and Ahhhs from all over the big tree.
The maple leaves looked like ten thousand flames. But they were flames without any heat. The air was getting colder, and most of the butterflies and birds had flown away.
Big black clouds blew in, bringing with them the first snowstorm. The snowflakes danced in the air, even though they didn't seem to have wings. The maple leaf thought about how thrilling it would be to join them. But it had little energy these dark, chilly days. The sun was weaker now and the nights were long.
Late that afternoon, just as the red sun was setting, a sudden gust of wind made the maple leaf flap harder than ever before. With a violent snap it broke free.
The leaf soared high above the tree, above the farm, above the lake and the snow-covered hills. Distant mountains came into view. "Mexico," the leaf said to itself. "That must be Mexico!"
For a minute and maybe more, the maple leaf was sure it was flying off to join the butterflies and the birds. "Better late than never," it said aloud.
But the wind died down. The leaf began to fall slowly through the air, spinning this way and that, and rocking from side to side. It landed on the cold snow at the trunk of the big maple, next to hundreds and hundreds of other leaves.
The leaf's adventure had come to an end.
The maple leaf sighed.
"What's wrong?" asked a branch that had fallen from the tree. "Aren't you just completely thrilled to be sitting here on the cold, hard ground?"
"No, I'm not thrilled. I thought I was flying. But I was just dropping. What a disappointment."
"Well, that's nothing," said the branch. "I used to think I was a scary snake."
"Snake! Snake!" the branch shouted. "You, know. Slither slither slither--."
The branch was interrupted by a voice from under the snow.
"Did you hear that?" the branch asked. "Who's down there?"
The voice from under the snow said, "I'm speaking to the leaf. I was saying that it should not be disappointed, because there are more adventures to come."
"And who the heck are you?" the branch shouted at the snow.
"I'm one of last year's leaves, down here in the soil. And I wanted to say that we leaves are important even after we fall to the ground. We keep feeding the tree by adding ourselves to the soil and making it richer for the roots. Why, we leaves even help feed the people in that farmhouse."
"Oh, I'm sure," said the branch with a laugh. "I'm sure the people are going to rush right out and start munching on dead leaves. Ha!"
"Just wait," said the voice. "A few months from now, someone will come out of the house and drill a hole in the tree--."
"How terrible!" the maple leaf cried.
"It's not terrible at all," said the old leaf from under the snow. "The tree isn't hurt. It just leaks a bit of the sap that we leaves helped to make. The sap goes into a bucket. And then it's cooked into sweet syrup that the family pours on something called pancakes. Without leaves, there would be no sap. And no sap, no sweet syrup."
"That's not all," said the old leaf. "When the maple scatters its winged seeds all over the ground, we leaves help them grow into healthy new trees by improving the soil."
"Seeds?" said the maple leaf. "I thought they were flying leaves."
There was the sound of leafy laughter from under the blanket of snow. "Well, a maple seed does look like it can fly. But it settles to the ground after a while, just like you have. And when the warm weather returns in spring, the seeds will sprout into tiny trees."
"You mean, it won't be cold like this forever?" asked the maple leaf.
"Finally, a bit of good news," grumbled the branch.
"The warm weather will come back next year," said the old leaf. "When it does, this tree will make new leaves. And in the fall, when the weather turns cold again, those leaves will drop, too. They will join us in the soil to help make new leaves and new trees. And so it goes. On and on and on."
"I guess I understand," said the maple leaf. "It was a very short migration, but the trip isn't over."
"You've got it," came the voice from under the snow. "The trip is never over. Never. You'll see."
There are no more visible symbols of life's unending cycles than autumn leaves, as they paint the landscape with every shade of yellow, orange, and scarlet, then fall to the earth. This book follows the season of one maple leaf, as it mistakenly assumes that, like the brightly colored bluebirds and monarch butterflies, it too will being flying south to a warmer climate. When a chilly wind breaks the leaf free, it is bitterly disappointed to find itself settling to the ground. An old brown leaf from the year before offers consolation, explaining that leaves break down into humus, which feeds not only the mighty maple but also the nearby family that taps the tree to make syrup.
The full text is below. The sample watercolors include two spreads and a one-page illustration.