Collecting leaves is like picking apples: Once you start, it's hard to stop. You slow down, and you look closely, comparing slight shades of color -- is this one ripe? Is it starting to go by? And no matter how many you have collected, you can always find just one more too tempting to leave untouched.
In a basket of apples, any sweet fruit is as good as any other. But leaves, even from the same tree, may have an infinite variation in shades and shapes. Is this yellow birch leaf clearer and freer of blotches than that one?
I went looking for leaves on Sunday, when the sun came out. I walked through Kennedy Park between downtown Lenox to Route 7, from The Bookstore to Chocolate Springs.
As near as I can tell, I took the No. 3 trail north, past the power lines and the stable and along the ridge above the brook. On the trail map at the park entrance, the trails have numbers to mark them; on the trails themselves, the signs have only names. The trails are beautifully marked, and I ended up where I meant to be -- without ever knowing which trail from the map I was on.
Slowly, as I walked, the battered envelope I'd found in my backpack filled up: A beech leaf the color of beer, swamp maples dark crimson, sugar maples yellow or mottled yellow and cardinal red.
In the evening, at home, I sat on the living room rug with the leaves spread out gently and my dictionary hauled from under the desk.
My dictionary is now sitting beside my arm chair with a three-foot stack of hardback books piled on top of it. A stroll through Google suggests I should leave it there for a week. So my sister may have to wait a few more days for her birthday card.
She was born in Connecticut, early in the morning, when the trees had hung out their brightest colors. That's always made sense to me.