Counting the leaves

Liz Bennett works as a mediator.  She was a finalist in the 2019 NT Literary Awards, a poetry place-getter in the 2012 Australian Cancer Council Arts Awards, and has had poetry and other writing published in Not Very Quiet, Stereo Stories and the anthology Imagining the Real: Australian Writing in the Nuclear Age (ABC Enterprises).  Born in Canberra, her home is now a Darwinian house-on-stilts.

My grandfather was a scientist
A classifier of things

When I was a girl
of twelve or thirteen
– almost too distracted by pop music and friends
but not quite –
he would ask me to join him for walks
on the hillsides of Canberra

Early on Sunday mornings
we would climb out of his blue Valiant
– ashtrays in its armrests –
and make our way up a dirt trail of his choosing
Sometimes he would lift barbed wire out of my way
so I could climb through,
startling kangaroos

My grandfather wore a tie
but made allowances for the bush by choosing
one of the less formal of his jackets
He wore a felt hat, more out of decorum
than to protect his bald head from the Australian sun

He carried three leather cases
One, around his neck, bore a camera
with lenses that would be painstakingly
attached and detached
depending on our subject
The other two were inside his jacket pocket
One contained a small pair of scissors
The other, a magnifying glass

My grandfather would stop at each tree or shrub
which he thought merited attention
– there were many
He would tell me its common and Latin names
With the scissors, he would carefully dissect seed pods
And when there were flowers
the camera would come out of its case
He would show me which lens to attach
how to focus
explain how long I should hold still
and let me take photos we would critique weeks later
when they came back from the chemist

As for me
I loved the sunshine
the trees
the flowers
and the dry inland air
but I was not a classifier
I did not understand
how I would come to regret
not recalling what he told me
and that a time would come when I would like to know
the name of things

But I do recall the Casuarinas
How my grandfather explained
that what looked like leaves
were in fact branches –
needles striped with lines like perforations
where, if you gently pulled both sides,
two circles of miniscule
interlocking teeth would be revealed
My grandfather told me
that these were the true leaves
and that if you counted them
you’d know the species

I don’t remember the numbers
or the species names
but I do remember searching for Casuarinas
and calling out when I found one
I would detach a tiny branchlet
and gently pull apart a perforation
My grandfather would take out his magnifying glass
and we would lean our heads together
standing close
under the dappled shadows of scribblybarks
and count the true leaves.

© Liz Bennett, 2021