This year, nature has left unusual drifts of shriveled brown leaves clinging to the Japanese maple outside our living room window in mid-January. It is a little worrisome _ what could it mean _ some strange malady? I stare at and through them each morning, and even tried tugging them off only to find each one fiercely held. Another small mystery, which only spring can solve.
Huntington sits in the middle of a deciduous forest ecology, which on its own runs through maple and oak to climax beech and hickory. Scattered fir or pine groves break up the monotony, once upon a time chestnut was abundant. Usually the lush canopy falls by the first week in December, but this season stretched a bit longer. With no snow yet on the ground, leaf blowers continue to ruin silence from near dawn to dark as yet another yard crew ekes out a few more dollars for food and fuel, paid by the hour, taking their time even in bitter cold.
We raked leaves quietly by hand when I was younger, mostly to keep thick mats from smothering grass. We burned piles in the back yard. A few patches and strays always remained and nobody complained. Now, of course, we can no longer burn, but the clean smell of wood fire has been replaced by nasty uncombusted gasoline fumes, a bad trade. Suburban normality evolved _ if that is an appropriate description _ to a need to have an absolutely living-room-clean lawn in winter. In the next century perhaps all trees will be cut down and replaced with paved piazzas.
One of the problems with today’s “service economy” is that _ like aristocrats of old _ we lose a lot of natural feedback. Meals are preprepared whether in restaurants or the freezer. Clothes come from big bins and racks. Food magically appears in ever-open stores. And property is just something to be seen out of a window. Without true connection to cooking, making, finding, or tending we lose perspective and fail to appreciate the world. We wander mindlessly as faux connoisseurs of shallow trivial impressions.
In Caumsett park, leaves coat forest floors thickly through November and the rest of the winter. Somehow, they are all reabsorbed by spring, enriching soil with nutrients and organic material. Nobody, as far as I know, thinks this unnatural and hideous. But, if things keep on, perhaps in the future robot armies will be dispatched to remove each leaf immediately (and then be sent to beaches to be swept clear of sand.) In the meantime, I enjoy kicking through piles and hearing the rustle underfoot, even appreciating mottled brown tones everywhere.
Lately, I’ve left most leaves on fern and flower beds. The ferns seem to appreciate a more normal environment and respond vigorously and without difficulty when fiddleheads erupt, endure later dry heat spells much more easily. Flower beds, I admit, are more for deep freeze protection and I do clear off most of the detritus when I begin to plant or as tulips and daffodils emerge.
Some suburban leaf obsession is simple ignorance, some misplaced desire for full control, some misguided conformism. All ignores the facts of common cycles. Leaves do fall, they do decay, and perhaps nobody likes to be reminded of our eventual and certain fate in our human cycle. The frequently quoted proverb “dust to dust” would be more accurately and organically rendered “leaf to leaf.” Perhaps then we could view autumn and winter as useful metaphors of our own real destiny in the larger scheme of time and space. Remaining leaves then could represent both memories and promise.