Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 9, No. 46
November 15-21, 2001 
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Leaving Autumn Be

No burial this pretty pair
Of any man receives,
Till Robin Redbreast piously
Did cover them with leaves.
— Anonymous

It’s the time of year when leaves, those not accosted by rake, can cover the country. And they’re still piling up.

Tidy homeowners fight them with rake or leaf blower from almost the moment the first ones fall sometime in September, intensifying their campaign in October when trees begin to shed in earnest. And now it’s November and time for the boughs to become bare.

I’m not among the legions who consider fallen leaves as litter. They’re raked only once annually in the large lawn at the Burton household on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County.

Each November about Thanksgiving time, I call Doug Bender, who does lawns in the neighborhood, and suggest he come and clear the yard with his big, noisy and elaborate blower that practically mulches them on the spot.

When he leaves, every blade of grass is visible, and I’m almost a hundred bucks poorer, but I’ll not have to worry — nor my neighbors either — about windblown leaves on the Burton property. If I lived further back in the country with no neighbors across Park Road or behind the house, Doug would never get a call from me.

My Life with Leaves
I like leaves whether on the limb or on the lawn, though maybe that’s because the only time I ever raked any was when in high school and college — and I did it then only for profit. In high school, it was 25 cents an hour, and 60 cents an hour when in college — which was back when pennies, nickels and dimes counted. Most anyone would stoop down to pick up a penny.
So leaves served me well, bringing spending money my way. But at home on the farm, we didn’t rake leaves: no neighbors close enough to be annoyed by those that blew into their yards. And there were many other things to do in preparation for winter.

The wind took care of the leaves as I dug corn stobs and other roots from the garden, cut firewood, stacked it and gave the henhouse a good cleaning and whitewashing before the cold weather set in.

I like to hear the rustle of leaves, to walk through them and listen. They sound a hell of a lot better than the buzzing maze of grasshoppers that popped up by the jillions from the fields and not too infrequently the lawn when I lived in Nebraska. That was a short stay because I couldn’t put up with a place that had neither leaves nor trees. Nebraska was a place where one had to practically wade through noisy ’hoppers, though they were good bass bait.

Wife Lois doesn’t appreciate leaves; she’s a city girl. Leaves can cling to the boots, even when you wipe your feet on the outdoor carpet, and end up on the indoor carpets. She also gets concerned about what the neighbors might be thinking when a stiff breeze blows our leaves to their lawns. I blame it on the wind and the trees; there are more important things to worry about.

I miss the smell of fall of yore. There’s a pungent odor when piles of leaves burn and smolder as they did back before the government decided such practices weren’t good for the air. At almost every house there was a growing pile of dead leaves. Periodically they were burned, and the nose could always tell when fall was in the air.

Leave Them Be
Now, leaves are either sucked by vacuums, blown into someone else’s lawn by electric or gasoline powered blowers or they’re carted away in big plastic bags. Nowadays, most of them go to mulch rather than to landfills, most of which are filled to capacity or nearly so.

Still I ask you, does the manufacturing and disposal of plastic bags, the fuel consumed by trucks that cart the leaves away and the energy required by power blowers do less damage to our environment than burning a pile of leaves?

I see they’re having problems in Baltimore, talking of no bagged-leaf pick-up, for budgetary considerations. I wonder what a fastidious lawn nut would do if the city wouldn’t collect the leaves that litter the lawn, yet they couldn’t be raked into a pile and burned. What good is a blower if there’s no place to blow the leaves — other than the neighbors’ lawns?

The Uses of Leaves
Back in the cold upper Northeast, leaves served as insulation. At farmhouses, they were packed up close to exterior foundations to keep the cold from getting under the interior floors. ’Twas a less smelly (though less effective) method of keeping the house warm than stacking cow manure against the foundation, as some did.

Leaves do serve a purpose when stirred with a little imagination. I find them quite effective as insulation when a plant vulnerable to the cold of winter is covered with them inside a circle of wire mesh. As a kid in the Great Depression when parents bought toys only at Christmas — and not many then — what greater fun was there than to jump and tumble in a pile of leaves? Or, if they’re dry enough, to see the bonfire they can make.

I really can’t think of a downside for leaves other than they clog the drains and spouts on the roof, but Doug Bender doesn’t mind. He collects another $40 once a year for their removal. Sometimes they annoy me when I’m searching for hickory nuts, often covered by freshly blown leaves. But those that I don’t get will make some squirrel happy.

Some hunters don’t like leaves. Even for the most light-footed nimrod, they rustle loud enough that anything from a squirrel to a deer can hear them coming. Me, I look at it from another angle. I make the leaves work for me.

I walk a bit, then halt and wait — and listen. It’s called stop-and-go hunting. Even the most cautious hunter can give himself away when easing through the forest over a bed of leaves. A squirrel hunter — which I was until squirrels became endeared to me when I started feeding them on the lawn — normally picks out an area where acorns or other nuts are available, then sits, waits, watches and listens.

More times than not, he is alerted to the presence of a bushytail by the rustling of leaves as it scampers about digging for nuts. The same can be said for deer and wild turkey hunters. Neither man nor beast can travel over dry leaves without making its presence known.

In a round-about way, leaves give me another great pleasure as November winds down and into early December. For the true appreciation of wildlife and nature, few sights can beat that of a gray squirrel making its winter home within a glob of sticks and dried leaves high in a tree.

It’s as fascinating as watching an oriole build a nest — and one has a much greater chance of witnessing it. One or more squirrels scampering up and down the chosen tree carrying in their mouths leaves and small branches or twigs can in a day make a comfortable winter home, sturdy enough that the north winds can’t blow it asunder.

We all see those balls of leaves in trees, though we didn’t much when I was a kid. Then, squirrels had more hollows in trees to winter over. Now chain saws fell dead or dying trees, and squirrels have to make do with
what’s available.

Ah leaves, leave them be. Listen to them rustle, watch them scatter and think of the words of Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940):

Listen! the wind is rising,
and the Air is wild with leaves.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly