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Opinion | Learning From ‘Leaf Town’

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Leaf Town started in the fall, during recess.

To reopen for in-person learning, the small elementary school had adopted new protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and one of those meant that the playground equipment in the nearby park was off limits. With their recreational routine disrupted, the kids were briefly at a loss. Then some of them piled up fallen leaves to outline the walls of a small room. They named it the Everything Store, and they begin transacting commerce: purely imaginary at first, then increasingly real.

A town sprang up around it. So-and-so added a hotel, now there was a bank, someone built big houses, someone built little ones — whatever services and facilities the children deemed essential. The structures looked like aerial views of ancient villages where only foundations remain.

The kids established their own currency: ginkgo, a rare but attainable leaf with a distinct shape that would presumably be hard to counterfeit. The town thrived for weeks with a brisk trade in detritus: twigs, a charm from a wayward bracelet, Nerf darts found in the weeds. A broken pencil might cost ten leaves, a tennis ball a hundred. The sale of precious finds like a Matchbox car, a discarded gymnastics medal or a travel-size hand sanitizer might wipe out the money supply, requiring the banker to make another trip to the ginkgo tree. The town was booming.

We learned about Leaf Town from Rose, nine years old, a student at the school, respectively our daughter and niece. We imagined that this was how most towns developed. A suitable location was chosen, and then, as more people joined the community, needs for specialized shops and amenities arose and were met.

Stuck like the rest of us in one spot by the pandemic, the children were constructing something dense, lovely and strange, watching it take shape from their collective imaginations, seemingly according to its own will.

“I guess it was society,” Rose said. “There were rules, sometimes a lot of them.” Newcomers had to have a good job and enough capital to open a restaurant or to begin construction on a beauty shop or hospital. “When I first came to Leaf Town, I didn’t know what was what,” Rose said, “so I accidentally walked through one of their houses, and everyone got mad at me. So that became a new rule: no trespassing. But it was fun, so I thought, ‘I will join you!’”

In the middle of the last century, an influential European avant-garde group called the Situationist International proposed a city with buildings that could change constantly at the whim of its inhabitants, a city in which work would be replaced by play, or be indistinguishable from it. Constant Nieuwenhuys, the group’s main architectural theorist, wrote in 1963 of future city-dwellers who would “be present at an uninterrupted process of creation and re-creation, sustained by a generalized creativity that is manifested in all domains of activity.”

What the Situationists sought, in essence, was a way for adults to regain access to the excitement of Leaf Town. In the middle of an isolating pandemic, these kids were creating a vibrant kind of life that many grown-ups didn’t believe was possible, even before Covid.

“We played because everyone could be part of it,” Rose said. “It’s not as much fun to go out and find treasures on your own. It was more fun to search for treasures in the park, and bring them back to the Everything Store, and sell them there.”

By now you have probably noticed that we’ve been referring to Leaf Town in the past tense.

It didn’t take long for the robberies to start. “The robbers tricked us,” Rose explained. “They looked like normal kids, and then when we took our money out, they would grab all our leaves and run. It made me sad, and pretty mad.”

Before the spate of robberies, the kids had left their stashes of trinkets and leaf currency out at the park overnight, secreted under trees or bushes. Now it seemed that one child, then two, then many had to become police officers: an entire force. A jail was also needed. The children began hoarding their currency, stuffing it into lunchboxes, hats, gloves and socks. They had become obsessive. The teachers took note, and put an end to the game.

The kids then switched to playing Leaf Town only after class had ended each day. This was when the outsiders came, older kids from different schools. One group of boys moved menacingly among the previously peaceful streets of Leaf Town, carrying large sticks. They declared they would destroy what the children had built. “These kids can’t stay here forever,” they taunted. This made the children all want to stay forever.

The kids had invented Leaf Town during a body-threatening pandemic; they’d kept it safe from the external world, but were their efforts doomed to fall victim to their fellow humans?

Watching from the perimeter with other parents and guardians, we felt tempted to intervene, but the children had to figure things out themselves. We held our tongues, but stayed close enough to jump in if things got too sticky. (Ha!) The kids set up a watch, keeping an eye on the boys hellbent on destroying their town. But one by one the children had to go home, for dinner or to Zoom music lessons, and Leaf Town was left defenseless.

Inevitably, when we checked the park on the way to school one morning, we found that the boys had carried out their threat. A group of girls, including Rose and her close friends, built Leaf Town back, smaller than before. Fewer kids wanted to play; the interest in commerce that spawned the Everything Store had now shifted to the burgeoning recess vogue of trading stickers. But the main part of the town was restored, rising once again from the material that nature provided.

Rose tried to understand the boys’ destructive impulse: the part of humanity that feels compelled and entitled to do harm and break things because they themselves feel hurt, confused, or undervalued. This is the part of America — of the world — that we struggle to explain. We tell Rose that those among us who reject peace and beauty are small in number, and that if greeted with kindness and given the opportunity, these people might change. We tell her that it’s vital to keep working toward justice and the common good, to keep acting honorably, even when faced with the prospect of senseless devastation.

We found the lessons of Leaf Town dispiriting at first. The town’s collapse had come not only from one swift blow, but through slow degradation that followed the waning of mutual trust. But in the weeks that followed the sack of Leaf Town, the children rediscovered and re-envisioned their community. The settlers came back home.

Whatever else it taught the kids and their guardians, Leaf Town left us with the lesson that human societies are practical and resilient even — or especially — in times of global crisis, when the impulse to look out only for oneself is demonstrably disastrous. As we try to envision the world we want to rebuild, we shouldn’t overlook the significance of some carefully arranged piles of leaves.

Beth Rooney is a photographer and writer. Kathleen Rooney (@KathleenMRooney) is a professor of English and creative writing at DePaul University.

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