Thursday, August 26, 2010

Leaf me alone

I’ve had leaves on my mind for the past few weeks. After putting them through relentless torture to try and skeletonise them, I’ve come to the conclusion that by weight they could also come under the category of real toughies in nature. Why they aren’t talked about in the same breath as spider silk and ants and such like beats me….

The story, as with most things these days, begins with a certain little boy, who is studying plant life  these days. To study leaf venation, the children in his class were asked to try out, with the help of adults, different methods to expose the internal structure of leaves.

Of course, like a veritable spider hanging around waiting for  a juicy tidbit, I leapt into action, collecting a whole bunch of leaves from the neighbourhood. I’m not a botany enthusiast, and about the only ones I recognized were silk cotton, peepal (Ficus sp) and bougainvillea.

Before the onslaught (leaf me alone, leaf me alone, they cried...)

I looked up the Internet and found a variety of posts, and messages on messages on message boards about skeletonizing leaves. Apparently, leaf skeletons are not only of interest to people studying science, but also to artists who use them to make greeting cards and for mixed media work.  

One of the methods was to boil leaves in water for a few hours, the other was to soak leaves in bleach. I set out with a bunch of leaves, popped them into a huge vessel of boiling water. I was a bit disturbed at the amount of energy being used for this, and refused to carry on beyond half an hour and abandoned this method. Surprise: the leaves seemed to actually get a bit tougher after half an hour!

Tough luck

I decided to try the chemical route, and put the toughest leaves from Step 1 into a ceramic dish containing one part of fabric bleach and two parts of water. As expected the silk cotton and the ficus stayed on, and other wispy but still whole leaves fell by the wayside. Every day the little boy and I had a little discussion about what had happened and whether there was any success yet.

Nothing much seemed to be happening to the leaves even within this solution, and after a day, I really felt that there had to be a better way around this. Is it possible that I was missing something? Surely, but surely, these leaves had to decompose wherever they fall, and perhaps we could go around looking for them in the in-between stages before their midribs and veins were eaten away.

So there I was, armed with an old chopstick raking the top soil which was quite damp after a bout of rain the previous evening. Believe it or not, I walked almost half the   perimeter of the apartment society, for at least about twenty minutes brandishing the chopstick, and did not come across a single leaf that was naturally skeletonized. No, no one looked at me strangely at all…they are quite used to some of the things I do by now.

It was then that remembered a little project that I had done during my undergraduate degree programme way back in the mid-eighties. We had to work in groups of two, so a classmate  and I decided we would study the rates of decomposition of different packaging materials like cellophane, banana leaves (used to pack food in restaurants in South India), newspaper, and of course a bit of polythene to act as a control of sorts. It involved fairly straightforward methodology -- we cut out large squares of each type of material and stuck each onto a sheet of glass and buried these sheets at the same level under about a foot of earth. At frequent intervals, we’d unearth these glass sheets, brush away the mud gingerly, and place them over graph paper and trace the area that had decomposed. I don’t really remember too much of the final outcome besides of course the fact that nothing miraculous happened with the polythene….. but one distinct fact stood out -- the banana leaf did not decompose as rapidly as one would expect!  I remember that we were quite stumped by that and researched a bit more and found that it had to do with the chemical composition of the leaf…if I remember right, the level of lignin (note to myself: check this out again).

Anyway, in the middle of  my reverie, I found that I had almost reached the end of the hedge rows around the perimeter  gate, and sort of half-heartedly poked  around the last bit of earth with the chopstick. To my delight, I found a whole clump of skeletonized ficus leaves right on top of the soil, apparently blown there by a gust of wind. 

Tough to find

Some of them were in good shape and looking at them I felt their delicate venation was so deceptive. They had survived a storm the previous day, and they were being handled, and yet, despite their brittle texture, they were pretty tough. Yes, these leaves are full of lessons.

Consider this poem by Robert Frost, which according to a site on the Internet, is one of his most complex poems. Yep, looks like he knew a thing or two about leaves.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold,
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost

The other lesson from the leaves was one of patience, the lack of which is a major failing I have. A day after I picked up our naturally decomposed booty,  I poked around the leaves in the bleach solution with my faithful chopstick  and found that parts of the leaf were bleached. I had actually been looking for little bits of organic matter in the solution which would indicate that the green or black bits were coming off…but the bleach had merely bleached the leaf, not caused decomposition, so there were “no little bits of green or black coming off”. After rinsing the  best  leaf carefully with water and holding it up, I found that the venation was faintly visible. The only thing was that after the rigorous assault on it, the leaf shrank sadly when it dried.

Bleached leaf ghost

If this had to be written as an experiment, it would be fairly linear and straightforward. All the frustration and fun gets edited out of such reports. We (read I) actually abandoned a process, went to another, got impatient, insisted there had to be another way around, and after we found what we wanted, found something else that worked too. Wish one could include marginals like in the MAD comics in science reports.

Beautiful, dead or alive

A nature journal might be a good way of putting the process, the poetry and the pain together…