August 30, 2021

New Leaves

Push open the polished wooden door that sits on your left as you come into the front hall and step quietly onto the deep blue and red Shiraz patterned carpet that covers the grained oak floorboards of the Library.

The north Library alone must contain well over a thousand books but another four or five thousand sit on the shelves of the main Library, just beyond the pillars. Some are marvellously old with thick pages or textured paper leaves that force you to turn the pages slowly, others are more modern. They range across a vast gamut of topics and types of prose as well as several languages and come in all sizes. Some are bound in leather, a few in parchment but the overall feel is of quiet, rich dignity.

Some of the books stacked on the lower shelves are really quite large, requiring considerable effort carefully to lift them and place them on a table in order to read. Somehow, if the book is large and older, the word leaf seems more respectful than page: it has more gravitas and weight to it, a sense of history. Actually, according to early bookmakers, a leaf was indeed more than a page because one leaf could, in fact, make two pages. Then of course there are all the metaphors involved with the word. We probably all have been encouraged at some point in our lives either by parents, teachers or friends to turn over a new leaf, to improve and become better. For many of us the chance to read, to learn and to educate our children, the next generation, is at the heart of our hopes and lives.

Books have always been regarded as treasures, things that most of us love and value. They offer so much: we can touch them and share them, read lines out loud, look at the illustrations and admire the bindings. They can offer us an escape, companionship, advice and consolation. They even have their own scents.

From paper and leaves to trees and woods – so equally does nature offer us ways to find an equilibrium which has been particularly important over the past 18 months. When the world is in turmoil, it remained in situ as significant numbers of us rediscovered walking as a pastime and a form of exercise instead of dashing off to the gym.

At this time of year, the leaves clothing the trees across the lawns outside the library take on a new stage in life. Albert Camus wrote that “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”. It seems extraordinary to me that summer is almost over as the whole year has seemed fleet of foot but there is no denying that the edges of some of the leaves are turning golden and edged in flushed red colours. There is a nip in the air in the mornings.

Observing the mass of bright berries on viburnums and hips on roses, I have been trying to remember my country lore and wondering if there is some significance for the coming winter in the masses of bright berries that are around this year. As usual this is about anticipation – lots of holly berries are supposed to mean a hard winter but the bright colours have a more practical purpose. Birds can apparently see more colours than us so nature uses the vivid reds and oranges to attract them. They then gather and eat the berries, drop or excrete the seeds and thus encourage the plant’s propagation and survival.

Whilst new leaves signal the same new beginning every year in nature, we tend to look for a more linear approach to new starts, steadily moving forward rather than repeating the past, looking for new mandates, new starts or new horizons. The desperate scenes around Kabul airport over the last week have testified more than anything to the urgent desire for survival and new beginnings, there had been the seeds of new beginnings but all now replaced by the need to escape from something which is no longer tenable, either physically or mentally. It has been more than disturbing to watch so many hopes and lives cast down.

The American poet Roethke wrote: “Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.” For those families who have been able to leave, it will be the ultimate “turning over a new leaf” as they literally start again from the beginning. For us it is time to help, those who go or those who stay, once more with books, education, reading and writing, those most essential of tools, whatever age or sex, whatever tribe or religion.