A Gingko Bath

When you Google “gingko biloba,” most web sites that pop up in search engines have to do with an herbal supplement that supposedly enhances one’s memory. But if you click on the Wikipedia link that is sure to pop up at the top of your search results, you’ll learn about a beautiful Chinese tree that is often planted in cities and towns because of its resistance to pollution. (See, I am such a font of knowledge on these things, and I didn’t even learn that from Wikipedia.) Male gingko trees are particularly swell; the female variety, well, its fruit smells like rotting meat (so not so swell).

Gingkos turn a striking yellow color in the fall, and they appear to “shimmer” in the least breeze (for a variety of reasons, including the way that the little stems join the branches at 90 degree angles–see? a font of knowledge). Another feature of the gingko tree is that it loses its leaves really quickly, often in a single day, all of them. In fact, last fall, a few small gingkos near us lost their leaves on a particularly windy day, and you could see the exact line of leaves coming out from each tree, as if they’d fallen within a few hours.

Gingko leaves have a memorable “biloba” shape, and often look like butterfly wings. I’m told that these leaves are rather unique among tree leaves because they are waxy on both sides–that means that neither side is rough to the touch. So as opposed to the scratchiness you feel when you go and jump into a regular pile of leaves, with gingkos, it’s all smoothness, even on sensitive skin.

But what has this to do with community? That’s a great question.

I’ve gotten to know a small group of women in my town who are all creative writers of some sort, at least on the side. We gather monthly and share our writing. We give one another feedback, we encourage one another, we appreciate one another’s quirks (there are many!), and we laugh a lot. Last year, one woman in my group, a former elementary school science teacher, wrote a poem about a gingko tree. In particular, the poem was about a tradition she had with her students of going outside the day that the gingko dropped its leaves and taking a gingko bath. It sounded like a fascinating concept–something sacramental, I’d say–but I promptly forgot about it.

Then last week, my writing group got an e-mail from the poet-science-teacher announcing that the gingkos were turning colors and about to drop their leaves. Stay tuned for a gingko bath announcement, we were instructed. Sure enough. A few days later: tomorrow, 4 pm, meet at the elementary school.

And we did.

The leaves had already been gathered into a pile for us by unknowing students, so we spread them out and hollowed out a place in the middle. Here’s how a gingko bath works: someone lies down in the middle of the leaves, and everyone else covers that person up, like you’re at the beach and getting buried in the sand. You feel a cool weight as the leaves pile up around you, and you feel their smoothness on your forehead and on your cheeks. Then, keeping your arms at your side, you wiggle your fingers out of the leaves so two others can grab your hands. You relax your back and neck, and you get pulled up slowly into the sitting position, feeling the gingko leaves slide off of your skin.

Sounds weird, right?

Well, it is.

But it’s also, well, relaxing. Redemptive. Sacramental.

And just plain cool.

And what makes it extra cool is that I have this strange little community who can gather near an elementary school playground and not feel odd about playing in the leaves. (I’m the youngest, and our ages span a few decades, so we’re a rather diverse group.) Yes, it’s community. A group of odd ducks, as we’ve often called ourselves, but community nonetheless.