The Gold Leaf: An Enchanting Modern Fable About the Antidote to Our Selfish Impulses
By Maria Popova
Wellbeing, argued the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm in his treatise on having vs. being and how to master the art of living, requires “breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.” Indeed, few things limit our wellbeing more than the compulsion toward ownership, from our conquest of material possessions as a metric of self-actualization to our relationship with time, which becomes another good to “save” or “waste.” But the most joyous things in life, as Hermann Hesse hinted a century ago, are best beheld rather than held in the grip of possession; best appreciated rather than appropriated.
That’s what Brooklyn-based writer Kirsten Hall and Canadian illustrator Matthew Forsythe explore with great gentleness in The Gold Leaf (public library) — an enchanting modern fable about covetous possessiveness redeemed by the unselfish appreciation of life’s unownable wonder.
The story begins on an ordinary day in a forest just awakening from winter’s slumber, awash in spring’s “jungle green, laurel green, moss green, mint green, pine green, avocado green, and, of course, sap green.”
At first, bustling with the thrill of the changing season, none of the creatures notices a most unusual visitation — a gold leaf, shimmering in the canopy.
But one by one, they see it, and one by one, they seek to possess it. “Each wanted it more than anything else in the world,” writes Hall, whose grandfather was a gold leaf artist responsible for embellishing some of New York City’s most iconic buildings, including Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall.
Suddenly, the harmony of the forest turns into chaotic competition for the gold leaf, which leaps from the page in actual gold ink against the textured vibrancy of Forsythe’s gorgeous illustrations, echoing a Bambi-era vintage Disney aesthetic.
A warbler plucks it first, but a chipmunk snatches it away, then a mouse steals it, then a deer, then a fox.
With each wily heist, we see little flecks of gold fly off from the leaf as it grows more and more tattered by the rapacity of its captors.
At last, no one has the leaf — its countless pieces scatter at the animals’ feet in a state of unbelonging. Hall writes:
The forest grew still. The only sound was the wind rustling the leaves, which sent bits of gold swirling in every direction.
With sorrow, the animals realized that their precious leaf was gone.
And so the seasons turn again — summer swelters in, the animals begin to forget about the gold life, and life in the forest slowly returns to normal.
Autumn comes, with its kaleidoscopic foliage of yellows — “waxberry yellow, bumblebee yellow, mustard yellow, candle-glow yellow, maize yellow, harvest-moon yellow, even yellow ochre.” And yet, no gold.
Another winter comes, then another spring rejuvenates the forest.
And then, once again, the miracle grows aspark in the forest — the gold leaf has returned. Hall writes:
The forest was alive with wonder. But this time, no one wanted the gold leaf.
We see the creatures leaping in jubilation, some now golden themselves, for they have learned that their satisfaction lies in the shared glee of bearing witness to beauty that belongs to no one and therefore to everyone.
The Gold Leaf, which follows Hall’s The Jacket, comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such imaginative treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life; What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child; Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence; and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, possibly the loveliest picture-book since The Little Prince.
Published May 4, 2017