We all know the saying “no two snowflakes are alike.” Did you know the same is true of leaves?
“Consider that there can easily be a hundred thousand lobed leaves on a single oak tree and that no two of them are exactly alike,” botanist Hope Jahren writes in Lab Girl, a memoir about her life studying plants, trees, soil and seeds. “Every oak leaf on Earth is a unique embellishment of a single rough and incomplete blueprint.”
One hundred thousand leaves — on one tree alone, and all of them distinct?
How many leaves does the Japanese Maple outside my window have and could I spot the differences? I’ve marveled at this tree’s seasonal changes for 15 years. Jahren makes me wonder if I’ve ever really seen it at all.
She encourages us lay people to be scientists. To observe a leaf and ask questions.
I snipped off the end of a small branch with 26 leaves to have a look.
“Guess what?” Jahren writes. “You are now a scientist.”
Some of the leaves were definitely different in size, shape and veining. Others, I wasn’t so sure about. I think it would take a microscope and a true scientist’s eye to see beyond the basic differences. It’s hard for me to fathom.
Easier for my untrained eyes to see were the differences in some cedar cones I collected across the street. This one, especially, caught my attention.
At first I thought it was so unique it must have come from somewhere else, that a bird delivered it here perhaps. But after putting on my scientist hat and looking at other cones in the same location, I now think they’re all from the same tree — a cedar tree I think. (If you know otherwise, please tell me.)
Here are two views of the collection I gathered and set in the corner of my garden.
And here’s what I observed: They were all rose-shaped, but unique. The original cone I found was shorter and squatter than the others, but it was just an extreme variation of the others. (And no, it didn’t look like it was a broken-off top from a larger cone.) They all had differences in size or the way they opened, some more subtle than others.
Everything in nature is a unique expression of it’s broader label. We just forget sometimes.
It’s true for us humans, too. And we forget.
“Oh, come on,” I can hear you say. “No we don’t. We don’t forget each human is unique.”
But don’t we? Just as we can’t see the leaves for the tree, sometimes we can’t see the individual for the human. In times of war, and as we’ve seen the past year, in our nation’s divisive politics, we often paint large swaths of people with the same brush.
We label whole groups “them,” “other,” “liberals,” “snowflakes,” “idiots.” We lump people into broad categories and ignore their nuances.
The Manchester and Portland train terrorists were extreme examples.
The suicide bomber stole 22 unique souls from this Earth. In a stadium full of faces he saw “same.” He saw “them.” He saw “other.” He saw “anti.” He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see the victims for who they really were: mothers and fathers, friends and classmates, daughters, and yes, sons, just as he was.
The white supremacist in Portland saw “same” and “them,” too. He went on an anti-Muslim rant against two teen Muslim girls on a train, and stabbed three men (two fatally) who stood up to his hate. He couldn’t see the beauty of our differences.
I want to label these men “monsters.” Wouldn’t it be better though to learn what made them stand apart? To observe them like scientist and ask what made them the way they were? To learn if there was something we could have done — or could do — to prevent such tragedies?
I know this is a stretch — going from leaves to cones to humans. I’ve lost the analogy I think.
Here’s really what I want to say. That small, rose-shaped “same,” but unique, cedar cone was the most beautiful thing I saw this week.
I dedicate it to those we lost.