Monday, November 2, 2009

The Kingdom Falls

The leaves drop from the trees and spread their wealth of color, shape, and texture on the ground. They fall on the sidewalks, the roads, the green-grass lawns, the little car park spots along the streets of close-packed houses where we don’t have garages. They fall on the front walks, on the unroofed porches and decks, on rose bushes and rhododendrons, and on the ships at sea. Well, maybe not that last, unless there’s a strong land breeze blowing. Rain brings the leaves down in a rush, and I’m sorry to lose the multi-colored canopies of the trees, just when the autumn show has reached its visual climax, but fallen leaves carpeting the ground have a special, all too brief season of their own.
It’s an annual “Cristo project,” wrapping a hard-edged manmade surfaces in the look and feel of living things. The colors carpeting the ground are warm and bright. We don’t have yellow, orange and red tones on the vast cantons of urban pavement at any other time. The effect of all these leaves riffling in the breezes, shifting with the gusts, blanketing lawns and sidewalks is a little chaotic, a little state of nature anarchy, turning city blocks into forest floors and woodland streams. The leaf fall covers the little sins of surface blemishes – most old sidewalks are nothing but blemishes, many side streets nothing but patches. It takes the organic wealth of the canopy and spreads it on the floor, matching the color of the ceiling and extending summer’s leafy days to autumn’s fleeting hours. It wraps us up in nature.
So, or course, we can’t wait to get rid of “the mess.”
We attack with rakes. We advance on the enemy with machines that burn unrenewable energy, producing artificial wind.
The city announces it will collect the leaves on a seasonal schedule up to a certain date – extended a few weeks this year, in a subtle bow to climate change – and so we rush to pile them up, put them into bags, and get them safely hauled away.
Why exactly?
It’s true that leaves on the ground won’t hold their color for long and stay as beautiful as they were in the trees, but they will soften the manmade landscape for a few weeks, or maybe a month or two, and why are we in such a rush to get down to our bare northern winter esthetic? Bare trees we can’t help; and they provide an interesting winter calligraphy against a twilight sky. But bare lawns and yards?
Leaves on pavement can be slippery when wet, and we do have to rake them away from drains; but the official and widely shared urgency to get rid of them suggests that the deeper, psychological motive is that fallen leaves on our streets and yards violate notions of “clean” streets, walks and lawns, and blur clear lines of human order. We behave as if our yards were extensions of our houses, our lawns carpets, and leaves some form of noxious “dirt.”
Personally, I am going with the let-it-be approach as much as practical circumstances permit. I let the shrubs and perennial plants wrap what leaves they can catch hold of around themselves. Leaves are nature’s free, all-purpose winter mulch. Many plants (clematis, crocosmia) need a protective mulch over their roots in winter’s down time to keep them warm. You can turn fallen leaves into a usable humus mulch for lawn grass by running your lawn mover over them. You don’t want last year’s leaves to layer and sit on a grass lawn permanently, depriving grass from light and water in the spring, but mincing them into little piece helps the soil digest them.
Since we don’t have a lawn mower – or a lawn, for that matter – I simply let the leaves cover garden spaces like a warm blanket for the cold days ahead.
After the wind blows for a few weeks and the rest of the street-lining trees finish de-leafing, I’ll make decisions about what has to be removed for the convenience of neighbors, mainly. I don’t want my leaf piles to blow continually onto the raked lawns of others. I’ll build up some piles so they get wet and pasted down quicker, bedding down for winter.
Last week after a rainy night, bright orange and yellow leaves from the maples filled our front-yard “cottage” garden, obscuring the shapes and small remaining patches of color on the low-growing plants. A few last red roses rise up above the sea of level. We enjoy the natural carpeting and enjoy the flowers (mostly red annuals this year: snapdragons, verbena, zinnias) that poke up above them.
In the back garden, the fallen leaves become a natural part of the autumn landscape, designed by forces too powerful to be quibbled with.
It’s an autumn-color land as it is, vividly seasonal when rare sunny hours light up the natural gold and yellow of shrubs and perennials, which are likelwise shutting down their leaf-energy factories for winter. Plants ranging from young rose of sharons, to a wide oversized hosta, PG hydrangea, wild grasses, spears of lilies and occasional last-gasp perennials are doing their harvest gold impressions.
The top leaves of the weeping cherry turn bronze as well. The other day a jay sat on top; he comes this time every year.
This is my study window view; I study it quite a lot.