We are always sweeping up fallen leaves

Watching leaves, watching time

A leaf grows old, waiting for the wind - Bukit Batok Nature Reserve. Photo by me.

I like to watch falling leaves, especially in autumn, a season Singapore does not have. There’s just something about that moment, when the wind catches a leaf on its last breath and sends it off, that feels achingly fragile and ephemeral. For a time I tried to photograph falling leaves in motion, to catch that one final moment when a leaf gasps for air, but I never quite managed to capture the same feeling.

In Singapore, we are always sweeping up fallen leaves. They clog the drains, and more importantly, they can breed mosquitoes, as an NEA inspection officer once told me: one small leaf can collect enough rainwater to host an entire brood of eggs. This has led to an interesting sight: our roads and public grounds are lined with magnificent raintrees—but the pavements are always swept clean, we have somehow gotten used to the sight of neatly manicured cow grass everywhere, mowed religiously by diligent crews of South Asian migrant workers.

It’s been a really difficult week for most of us in Singapore, where today we returned to ‘soft’ lockdown, social distancing restrictions that were last imposed in May, but in truth, feels very close to the traumatic ‘hard’ lockdown of 2020. The worst thing about the start-stop, start-stop nature of opening up, then locking down again, must surely be what it does to our sense of time: it feels like we are regressing. Time travel, but to a darker place in our past, not to the bright, boundless future harbouring unknown possibilities and surprises.

No one I know is really okay. Especially not after the murder at River Valley High, and the equally tone-deaf response of some administrators. Numbers and outperformance have become so ingrained in us as a measure of our self-worth, that the first thing a school administrator does to justify he is doing enough by his students, is to say “97% of students reported back to school". We are so out of touch with our feelings, and so out of touch with our young.

It has been a good two decades or so since I was last in the system, but I have been hearing for years, from parents and friends who are teachers, about the worsening mental health of our students, teachers who care, who want to care more, but are just so burnt out. As an adult, I find social media toxic enough, I cannot imagine what it must be like for teenagers now, trying to find their sense of identity and belonging, and it makes me worry for my kids.

Trying to find some light, I found myself wandering to a spot I keep returning to of late, the smaller cousin to Bukit Timah Hill, Singapore’s highest point. I first went there on encouragement by my therapist, who told me ‘you’ll see lots of interesting birds there’. And then I found out from local birder David Tan (give him a follow, he’s always posting interesting things about our local birds) that most of these birds are …abandoned pet birds. And that many of these birds are actually endangered in their natural habitats, captured by poachers for the exotic pet trade.

A family of white-crested laughingthrushes, native to Indochina, who have made Bukit Batok their home. Photo by me.

Trying to make sense of everything going on, I climbed to my favourite point on the tiny hill, resting on a bench that overlooks the abandoned quarry. The sound of a Chinese flute floated over the water. I leaned back and looked up at the tree cover, forming a natural arch over where I was seated. It was a hot, Thursday morning, the air heavy and humid. Breathing felt difficult, and I closed my eyes, forcing myself to take in long, deep breaths. You are alive. You are still alive. After some time, a short gust of wind blew over the trees, a handful of leaves fluttering to the ground. I opened my eyes. Above me a single, browning leaf, still shaking from the now-departed wind. The air fell still again. The leaf clung on.