Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mowing the Leaves

After the first serious frost the mulberry leaves on the tortured tree in my back yard—the one that is destined for the woodpile any day now—rain down. This happens all in one gusty hour. In that very same hour, just around the block, the yellow leaves of a neighboring gingko go from dangling adornments to brilliant golden carpet. Meanwhile, the Ebenezer Scrooge in front of my house obstinately grips its green. Even as all of its fellows lighten their loads, my badly topped, misshapen silver maple insists on photosynthesizing, as if to say, “Hate me if you will, but I command you to marvel at my genetics.”

My silver maple: still photosynthesizing in November.
When Bob and I moved into the house on Cherokee street with the silver maple and the hacked and bleeding mulberry three and a half years ago, we made a deal. Phil comes, too. Every week or two Phil pulls up in his white van, gets the gas mower out, and cuts our modest lawn, as he did Bob’s lawn on Evergreen Street for many years. I do the gardens. In my last house, I succeeded in reducing the lawn to a 5-minute mow, and I’m slowly doing the same here, but until that time, there’s Phil. He edges too, not because we’ve ever asked him to, but because that’s the way things are done in our neat little town. My mower hides out in the shed until after the hour of raining mulberry leaves.

So yesterday, I dragged the 100-foot cord to the patio outlet, plugged in the mower, and gave it its first annual workout. Across the street, a man in a tractor was dragging a huge tarp filled with leaves to the curb. He raked, he piled, he pulled. My chopped mulberry leaves fell between blades of grass and disappeared behind the path of my electric mower. I’m not saying my way is the best way, but … he raked, he piled, he pulled. For hours.

Feeding the worms
Every October, Phil would rake the leaves of Bob’s sycamore trees on Evergreen Street into big piles along the curb. He never, to his credit, used a noisy leaf blower to blast every single messy leaf onto public land, but, just the same, Bob’s lawn was perfectly devoid of anything that might spoil the neatness when the job was done. And then a big vacuum truck would come along and steal the piles. Criminal.

No thank you, I tell Phil, I will take care of the leaves on Cherokee Street. Meaning, I will keep every one of my leaves thank-you-very-much. Now, I could say that I was thinking about worms and other helpful soil animals as I monotonously mowed my mulberry leaves, and how they would churn the leaf bits into lawn fertilizer with their digestive system. But that would be a lie. I was thinking that, with a fractured rib, walking behind a mower was so much more possible that raking and piling and lifting. I gave the front lawn a cursory pass. The curled maple leaves—those that had in spite of their best efforts to hang on come loose in the wind—crumbled under the blades. Striving for perfection would be a thankless waste of effort at this point.

It’s a messy time of year. The leaves of my once handsome castor bean plant hang limp and ugly on the suddenly awkward frame. It disturbs me. I would like to say that I am comfortable with my garden going to ruins. But, again, I would be lying. It’s not like in high summer, when the coreopsis is in glorious disarray and annual ageratums and petunias fill the garden gaps leaving no room for weeds or discontent. In the throes of the growing season, I revel in a manageable measure of messiness.

Stewartia leaves on 'Lavender Stream' sweet, and still fragrant, alyssum.
In a week, or a month, I’ll be mowing the leaves again. It’s a job I would happily turn over to Phil, but he would look at me funny. He would be thinking (or maybe this is my paranoia talking), “but that’s not the way we do things around here.” If I did not watch over him he would empty the bag at the curb and my leaves would be stolen, sucked up by the big vacuum truck. My leaves. Of course, my version of fall order is equally dogmatic and, in the scheme of things, just as quirky as Phil’s. On a large and small scale, we all manage our messes, continuously. That’s what we do. 

And if they get away from us, nature manages them for us.