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Photo of collected gum leaves by Emma Wilkins

What Colour Is A Gum Leaf And What Shape?

Unless words count, I am not the kind of person who collects. But lately, I have found myself noticing—taking, treasuring—coloured shapes I used to walk upon.

Perhaps I have the snake to thank. Before I saw it sliding, fast across the path, before I froze and watched it simply melt away, I hadn’t thought to fix my wandering gaze on ground. Nor noticed what I had been stepping on.

I live on an island called Tasmania. It sits beneath, and belongs to, a larger island called Australia. The eucalyptus tree, which grows and thrives in many countries now, is native here. It boasts more than 900 species and dominates the land that we call “bush.”

I arrive home holding my new treasures loosely in my hand. I look at each in turn, afresh. Their curves: some easy, elegant, some pained. Their surfaces: some dotted, others dashed or spotted, faded, chewed—some rough, some smooth. Each is divided with a line that can be traced from tip to tail, not one is straight, symmetrical; none could ever be identical. I photograph them all. They will not keep, but in this way I keep them.

I live a short walk from Hobart’s city centre, all downhill. And closer still, uphill, there’s native bush. At night, wallabies descend four blocks—bouncing down the footpaths, crossing streetlit roads to feast on moonlit lawns. By night they take from my garden, by day I take from theirs. 

I was walking in the scrubby bush that crawls upon the hills behind our house. My eyes were on the path. This island isn’t home to harmless snakes; all are venomous. And as it happens, the ground here is never dull. Looking down has made me notice and delight in something new.

 As I finish individual shots, they form a pile. I photograph them all at once, a glorious, unruly mess. I wonder at their beauty, their variety, their brokenness, their grace. And I marvel at the fact I hadn’t marveled until now. How did it take so many years to really look, to really see? I’m mystified. What other wonders do I overlook each day?

I used to think the Aussie bush a little dreary, somewhat dull. The greens and blues of gum leaves may prove bright and full of life up close, but from a distance they seemed lustreless and dull. Meanwhile I’d swoon over the luminescent greens of European trees in spring. And I loved the way in autumn they would burst, slow-motion, into flames. But recently, belatedly, I’ve seen that gum leaves come in many colours too—they also change and change again, are beautiful—even and especially once they fall; while they’re lying, quietly dying, on the ground.

Most I love their blemishes, emerging as they age, as they’re weathered, as they’re bruised, as they’re trodden, as they’re eaten by disease and animals, as they twist and writhe then stiffen, unable to unwind, as they break and as they crumble, returning to the dust. I love the way they form a carpet, catch the light, reflecting silver-white or gleaming gold. They fascinate me most not when they’re fresh and young and thriving on a tree, but when they’ve lived a little while; when just a little while remains.

Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer. She enjoys gathering and arranging words, ideas, and scattered leaves. Find her at emmawilkins.contently.com.