Friday, November 21, 2008

The Forgotten Pleasure and Utility of Autumn Leaves

(First appeared in the Princeton Packet)

Of all the contrasts in perspective between children and adults, none is more striking this time of year than in how we view autumn leaves. For children, leaves are a crisp sound underfoot, a source of beauty in color and flight, a gift from above to revel and play in. For many adults, that joy and gratitude mutates into resentment and complaint. Glorious leaves become an unwieldy burden called “yardwaste”.

There is plenty of adult logic to suggest that the child’s view is less na├»ve. Each time leaves get piled on the curb for pickup, the urban soil becomes less fertile, less absorbent, less hospitable to birds and other wildlife. The yard’s loss then becomes a public hazard, obstructing traffic and polluting local streams with nutrients. The CO2 spewing from battalions of leaf blowers, and the municipal convoys that scoop up the leaves and haul them out of town, hastens spaceship earth towards the tipping point of ecological havoc.

But I can understand why people grow resentful. Trees, in their own quiet but relentless way, are ongoing critics of our way of life. They are constantly dumping some sort of detritus on our patios, our houses, our idle lawns. Whether it's spent flowers in spring, seeds and sticks through the summer or dead leaves in the fall, the message is clear. Trees are predisposed to bury our coiffured human habitats and bring back a cool, moist forest floor into which they can spread their roots.

It’s best not to take this personally. And though our adult bodies may not be ready to leap into a pile of leaves for the sheer pleasure of it, there are ways to smuggle into adulthood a child’s gratitude for leaves. To get along with nature, and to sustain hospitable conditions on our one and only spaceship, it helps to work as nature works, by finding opportunity in discarded things. Nature has no landfills. All “stuff” travels in an endless circle, from life to death and back again. Think, therefore, of your yard not in terms of leaf exports and fertilizer imports, but as an economy unto itself, where plants extract nutrients from the soil, then send them dancing back down again as spent leaves to replenish the soil and all the life it holds.

To accommodate autumn's harvest in our tidy urban landscapes, become a connoisseur of leaves. For each type there is a strategy. Pine needles make an attractive mulch under shrubs and trees. Locust leaves are so small they require no raking at all. Silver maple leaves curl up and quickly decompose, so can be raked into flower beds or ground up by the lawn mower and left on the grass. Oak leaves, being thicker and longer lasting, will need to be corralled in a corner of the lot to settle back into the earth over time.

Children may push their vegetables away, but they know a thing or two about appreciating leaves. For the leaf-spurning adult world, it’s worth taking a fresh look at autumn’s harvest. Surely there is some measure of happiness to be regained when a foe becomes a friend, when the eye sees not burden but opportunity falling all around.

More information can be found in the Fall Leaf Management brochure, published by the Princeton Environmental Commission, available at town halls and downloadable from

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