I'll probably be seeing them in my sleep for the next week. Why? Because I spent most of yesterday raking leaves and piling them into waist-high rows. Then I loaded those leaf-mountains—one wheelbarrow-size portion at a time—and trucked them around the cottage to my make-shift compost dump, which is really just a narrow space between the base of the hill below the road and several piles of topsoil I had dropped off to use for landscaping. There, the leaves can spend the next few months breaking down without the wind blowing them around or me looking at them—and next spring I'll add them to the dirt and use the enriched mixture when planting or for top-dressing.
About midday, when I had the rows raked but before I'd begun the wheelbarrowing, I took a short break. From the perspective of the deck rocker, where I sat sipping from a bottle of water after washing down a couple of Tylenol for my aching back, I decided the long leaf piles resembled a range of small mountains—possibly the Big Snowbirds down in North Carolina, or the Cumberlands in eastern Kentucky.
There's no shortage of leaves to deal with or not, as you wish, when you have almost an acre of ground that's mostly in trees—and big trees, at that. Trees in the 50–100 foot high range. Sycamore and hackberry, box elder, basswood, walnut, elm, to name a few. The largest sycamore is easily five feet in diameter; a big tree that produces big leaves and lots of 'em.
I've never worn out a rake…but it might happen here, providing I don't wear out first.
When the pain meds kicked in, I ended my break and began moving the mountainous leaf piles around to the composting cul-de-sac. We're talking maybe 50 wheelbarrow-loads here…and when I finally called it a day around 4:30 p.m., the hauling part of the job was only half done. Today's work is visible through my window even as I write.
However, that's not the whole story. The way the cottage is situated, the 300-foot stretch of river just beyond my great-room windows is what I consider my front yard. No leaves to rake and haul there! To the rear of the cottage is a parking area, and the drive leading down from the road. This steep, 50-x-300 foot section of hillside, between the road above and the level land where the cottage sits, is covered with trees and various bushes. I never do anything with all those leaves, preferring the au naturale shaggy, woodsy look.
But…and this is the the kicker…the cottage sits about midway on the bank-frontage portion of the property. Therefore, I have both an upstream and downstream side-yard. Yesterday, I worked in the lower side-yard only. I've not even begun to rake or pile, let alone haul, leaves from the other yard! And probably won't get around to that one until later in the week—providing the weather holds.
So common and unobtrusive we take them for granted. They seem so simple. Yet mankind has never managed anything half so marvelous. Through the process of photosynthesis, using the chlorophyll that gives a leaf its green color, a leaf converts sunlight into energy, adds water and carbon dioxide, and forms the various sugars and starches which feed the plant. As a byproduct of this magical manufacturing, the leaf exhales water vapor and oxygen. How cool is that!
At summer's end, with reproduction duties and growth over for the year, a plant begins storing it's energy reserves in the lower stem and roots, preparing for that long winter's nap. Days shorten; sunlight wanes. Chlorophyll regeneration slows, then halts. No more green. The leaf changes color—or rather, it reveals its true colors—the carotenoids and anthocyains which color leaves in scarlet and burgundy, crimson and rosé, orange, yellow, gold, lemon, russet, tan, bronze, amethyst, and dozens of shades in-between. That breathtaking autumnal patchwork we oooh and ahhh over come fall. One final show, just for us, courtesy of that lovely little leaf. How many manmade factories look that good after they've shut down production?
Of course, not all leaves turn color and fall off in autumn; many, such as holly, periwinkle, mountain laurel, stay green all year.
Then there are trees which seem to drop their leaves reluctantly—oaks being high on this stubborn-minded list. Even in the midst of February's whipping winter winds, you can usually find an old oak still hanging onto many of its leaves, though they're by then looking an ugly brown and decidedly tattered.
My big elm kept most of its bright yellow leaves until last Wednesday, when for whatever, it decided to drop them over a matter of hours—a gold cascade that I found both thrilling and sad. But my weeping willow hasn't yet taken that final step—in fact, its narrow leaves are still more green than yellow. They looked so marvelous against yesterday's blue sky that theirs was the only portrait I made.
An artistic moment between bouts of landscaping labor. Rake, rake, pile, load, haul, dump, rake some more. As I said, I'll likely being seeing leaves in my sleep for the next week.