Camera strap around my neck, I wanted to photograph a red leaf floating in water. Along with my eleven-year old son Jacob and his friend Will, we set off to find a woodland stream in the afternoon. Both boys eagerly helped on my quest for colorful foliage. Jacob found a red maple leaf along the path and Will shared an orange leaf shaped like a three-pronged t-rex footprint, probably from a sassafras tree.
They led me to a stream off the path. We wove between the thick brush and thorns to reach the gentle rippling water. The boys jumped down several feet to the soggy eroded bank. The sandy streambed was wide, thick with downed branches and lined with open tree roots. What little remained of the stream since the heavy rains earlier in the month was then shallow and less than a couple of feet across. I carefully climbed down after the boys to a bank that was recently underwater.
Jacob stepped over the water and scouted the ideal spot for the leaf to hit the water. As he dropped the leaf, he insisted that our floating leaf was not the truth.
“It isn’t real, Mom,” he said. “You cannot make nature how you want it just for a picture.”
Snapping a few shots, I argued the leaf came from this forest.
“The leaf could have landed in the water. Just because we moved it does not make it a lie. Does it?” I asked. He shook his head again.
“You can’t mess with nature and pretend it just happened,” he said.
I followed his eyes and saw the moss-covered waterlogged rock just after he did. He scooped out the leaf and carefully positioned it on the rock.
I asked him, “I’m not pretending. Is it real? Is this fiction or is it nonfiction?”
He looks up with a puzzled expression, processing the question or maybe trying to figure out if I am mocking him.
“It is real leaf. It fell from a tree in this forest. Other leaves have fallen into this stream. What’s wrong with this one?” I asked.
He kept shaking his head, and then both boys ran off to play downstream. I watched my red leaf and thought about what is real and what is close enough to real. All I really wanted was a picture of a red leaf in the water.
Climbing out of the sandy streambed I clambered through the brush and thorns back to the path. A bright orange leaf caught my eye, a little smaller than the first one. I picked up the leaf and moved it just a few feet and put it on a football-sized rock surrounded by crunchy brown curling leaves. The leaf was absolutely perfect; the breeze probably brought it down while we were at the stream. But somehow it looked out of place on the rock surrounded by dead, drying leaves. It was not real; the breeze did not drop it here. It looked false and orchestrated. Maybe Jacob was right after all. I no longer wanted a picture of it.
I walked ahead. Jacob came back to the path first, while Will lingered a few minutes.
“Hey, mom! Come check this out!” he hollered.
Backtracking along the path, I find him squatting down over a rock with the bright orange sassafras leaf.
“What do you think? This is real nature, Mom. It’s beautiful,” he said and looked up at me.
“I did that, but I couldn’t even shoot it! I knew it wasn’t your version of real.”
Laughing together, we walked away and continued our debate about real and staged, or to me, about creative nonfiction and fiction. A few minutes later, Will emerged out of the thorns and brush.
He calls out, “Ms. Valerie, come check out this leaf!” We turned around and saw him standing at the same orange leaf on the same rock.
It was real because it caught all of our eyes. It was real because we marked it as special out of thousands of leaves. It was real even if I chose its resting place rather than chance or the breeze. Without my hand placing that leaf on the rock, we would not have paused, would not have noticed it at all. It would only have been another dying leaf on the forest floor.
We walked out of the forest together, laughing and debating the artful leaves around us. Though my image of that orange leaf on the rock remains, I forgot to go back and take its picture.