COLUMN: ‘To see the leaves’

This was my weekly column published in the Sunday, May 31, 2009 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

To see the leaves
By Aaron J. Brown

When you grow up nearsighted no one tells you that you might be nearsighted or that you may become nearsighted as you approach school age. Nearsightedness, like death, taxes and romantic drama, hits you unaware but makes you feel foolish for never anticipating such perplexing absolutes. And yes, I’m still talking to you, Mr. and Ms. 20/20 Vision.

Like a lot of people, I realized I was bat blind when I was a kid in school squinting at the blackboard. I was hauled in for the eye exam and asked about letters and E’s and blinking lights. I was told that I failed, the first test I had ever failed, but that it was OK. I was going to wear glasses now. Dollar signs must have spun in the eyes of the optical sales people. For a second grader I was really nearsighted. My misaligned eyeballs represented decades of income and sales commissions. The mood dropped, however, when it was revealed that I was from one of those families that shopped from the special shelf. This was the shelf for the uninsured and those with insurance plans drawn up by the Monopoly Guy. You had two choices in frame color – black or a sort of faux wood-grain brown that, to the best of my memory, matched the interior trim of our Oldsmobile station wagon. We went with the brown.

Because my prescription required extra grinding I remember waiting a good long time for my new glasses to arrive, but I was not disappointed. Every nearsighted person I’ve met seems to share a similar experience. You slide those first glasses up over your nose and look out at a new world. At first, it’s just the optical store, where crisp logos and fonts are designed to convey that your new glasses are actually magic, well worth the retail markup. But then you get outside and, to a person, the legions of nearsighted people (it is a dominant genetic trait, by the way) report the following: “I can see the leaves.”

This is where I have to explain things to the perfect vision people. You folks have always known that trees were more than just green blobs perched on fuzzy brown sticks in the middle of a much larger greenish blob. But for the nearsighted this was only assumed, a theoretical concept not unlike relativity. But with glasses, contacts or corrective surgery each leaf becomes real.

It occurs to me that leaves are a pretty good metaphor. Leaves on a tree all start out pretty much the same way. Buds burst with green and then you’ve got those little pre-leaves we saw a couple weeks ago here in northern Minnesota. Last weekend, our two-year-old son George spent a good 20 minutes running his hands through the light green leaf sprouts of a poplar tree. Sometimes we wonder if he’ll need glasses, but on that day he seemed to be inspecting each new leaf.

It’s a cliché to talk of not seeing the forest because of all the trees in the way. It’s more apt to remember the leaves involved in that equation. No leaf outlives its tree, or its forest. A leaf might live a long full life, turning golden and fluttering away in an autumn wind. A leaf might also burn in a May forest fire, be eaten by a June caterpillar or used as toilet tissue by an underprepared July camper. But every leaf has its purpose. Every leaf deserves its shot.

So it’s good to see the leaves back. Yes, it’s nice that the leaves are beautiful but it’s more important that we remember what they mean. No matter how much sight you claim, there’s always another lens that can put what matters into clearer focus.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog His book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” recently won a Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.


  1. I relate to the leaves/eyes/glasses thing completely. I still look down the road to see if I can see the leaves on the trees. If I can, I don’t make an effort to get an eye doc appointment for a few months, even if I’ve already gone for a year since I’ve seen him. All my life, except the last three years, I’ve needed new stronger glasses each year. I’m so near sighted that I haven’t been able to even read without my glasses on, except that has changed in the last two years. That’s one improvement from aging I didn’t expect.

  2. Catherine Conlan says

    I said the same exact thing when I got my glasses in first grade. My husband, when he got his glasses in grade school, went to an eye doctor who had a view of Lake Superior. My husband, when he put his glasses on, said, “I see waves!”

    Nice column.

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