After my group of 12- and 13-year-old middle school students lined the riverbank with foraged materials arranged in Andy-Goldsworthy inspired patterns, they walked back to camp. Preoccupied with my ongoing roadside search for a leaf to flatten in a book, I didn’t hear everything they said. A couple of them talked about the inability of cameras to capture fall colors. Hugo walked alongside me. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m looking for a perfect leaf,” I said, pulling on a low branch.
“What do you mean? Isn’t everyone’s definition of perfect different?” he asked.
School’s been in session long enough for me to know Hugo knows things I don’t know, like swing dance moves and the history of yoga’s religious roots, so I hesitated.
“I guess I’m looking for the Platonic ideal of a leaf,” I said. “Suppose we were in a big room and we asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine a bird, and everyone took a turn describing the bird they saw, and we combined the characteristics of the birds, we could arrive at an image of a bird containing some essential qualities of birdness. That’s what I want.”
“Maybe a canary or a cardinal,” Hugo said, pulling his hoodie off and shaking his hair, “at least for our class. Not for everyone everywhere because we don’t know if the pictures in our minds are determined by biology or geography.”
A week before our school came to Tall Timber Ranch I had caught Hugo sleeping on my classroom floor during independent reading. “Where’s your book?” I had asked, nudging him. “I forgot my book, but I memorized it,” he said, eyes flickering open. “I’m reading it in my head.” Then he told me how much he appreciates marginalia in ancient texts. Then he said he hates heading his paper every day because “It is SO annoying that the date changes.”
As we approached the main part of camp where the rest of the students were scaling walls, climbing ropes, and slinging arrows, Hugo pointed out yellow leaves that were dotted and drooping and brown leaves that were fallen and folded. He directed my gaze toward dewy leaves on the road. Two girls behind us talked about Taylor Swift. “These leaves are like Taylor’s backup dancers,” one of the girls sang. “So much better in person.”
We rounded the corner and three mountain peaks poked the sky. Hugo kept his gaze on the trees.
“In the birds that we imagine in the big room,” he said, “can we include pelicans and penguins?”
“Because we need to think about them too.”
Note: Hugo’s name and some identifying details about his life have been changed to protect his privacy.