Tribute to Fallen Leaves—Let Them Be!

(Background: This November a City Council member in our small Northern California town of Sebastopol proposed a ban on leaf blowers, which the community and Council are currently discussing. Bans have been passed in many cities around the United States and proposed elsewhere. Though some dismiss this issue as minor, others consider it important.

In addition to the more political articles that I’ve published locally on leaf blowers, the following praises leaves. Two websites with further information are Zero Air Pollution at www.zapla.org and www.nonoise.org.)

As late Autumn matures into early Winter here in the Redwood Empire, some leaves leave their dignified, upright positions and glide harmlessly to the ground. I watch them spiral down. Valley and Black Oaks on the land where I live will soon be stripped naked—mere skeletons without protective, warm clothing. This allows the sun’s rays to reach the ground and visually expose the lush waterway at the bottom of my small, organic farm. Conifers drop sharp needles gradually over time.

I look and listen quietly to the music the leaves sometimes make as they fall. Humans named this season after their important, life-giving descent. The planet’s rich forest floor maintains us all.

Leaves seem to delight in the arrival of their favorite dance partner—the wind that blows in from the Pacific Ocean and takes multiple partners for a spin on the forest dance floor. Dear leaves, I love you so, in your many forms, shapes, colors, kinds, sizes, and smells. I relish the soft outside bed that you make during this season, onto which I will recline and sleep out during Spring and Summer, as you feed my dreams during your decline. You generate our futures. I appreciate your delicacy.

Trees and leaves are wedded in a deep connection; one cannot survive without the other regenerating them, though their forms change. Humans could not survive without life-giving trees that offer fruit, beauty, moisture, and oxygen. They help clean up the messes that industrial humans make and the chaotic climate changes that we stimulate by our over-use of fossil fuels to drive the machines that we use to control, manipulate, and dominate nature.

Leaves transform the sun’s energy, breaking CO2 down into carbon and oxygen. Humans need a constant supply of air to survive. Leaves are the ultimate source of life for all plants and animals on the Earth through food-manufacturing, photosynthesis, and transpiration. Leaves bring the breath of life to us. They capture water and bring it to the ground. They provide cover for seeds, protecting them and enabling them to grow into the trees and other plants that sustain us. Though small, leaves are an essential part of the food chain in many ways, which I realize when a see a Blue Jay grab a worm from a pile of leaves on my farm.

Yet we continue to cut down rainforests in the Amazon and elsewhere—described by some as “the Earth’s lungs”–at alarming rates and blow life-giving leaves into sterile plastic body bags. Leaves warrant more respect and gratitude. Instead, some treat them as a nuisance and abuse them. In addition to all the good work they do for humans and the rest of creation, they are wondrous, mystical, and beautiful. A pile of leaves can be quite beautiful and compelling to children and other creatures, if the adults would just let them be.

Sure, leaves can sometimes get in the way. Leaves are not perfect all the time, or appropriate everywhere. Though I sing their praise, I do not mean to deify them. But many good things do come in small packages, especially at this time of year. Leaves can be moved by brooms and rakes, gently, from an undesired place into compost piles into which they will joyously release their helpful contributions.

My gardener friend Jay Pedersen, who works at Sonoma State University, where I teach, has written a “Blowers Away Recipe” for a “Peaceful and Healthy Garden Culture (Serves many).” He notes that the ingredients include “gloves, rakes, brooms, scoop shovels, tarps, pitch forks.” Studies reveal that these simple tools can be even faster than the industrial alternative.

But wait. What do I see? Someone has strapped a heavy, vibrating machine to his back. What is it that now thunders? He pulls a cord and the machine erupts explosively into action. The leaves seem to bother him. So he arms himself for battle and blows them around and around and around. So much firepower against such sweet and giving creatures that merely seek to bed down together on the comfort of the ground. The wind returns to play with its partners. The man shoots at them again. To what end?

Dear leaves, please forgive the fearful leaf blower warrior.

A life without visible fallen leaves afoot, especially in the Fall, is missing something important. A leafless town is a lifeless town. Fallen leaves remind us of the natural birth/growth/death cycle.

Poets have been inspired by and praised leaves for centuries. Walt Whitman worked most of his adult life on his one book of poems—Leaves of Grass. There are things that we do not much notice, like the leaves afoot, without which we could not survive.

Robert Frost also wrote about leaves and grass. Contemporary American poet Mary Oliver, in “Song for Autumn,” speculated “…don’t you imagine the leaves think how/ comfortable it will be to touch/ the earth…” Such great American poets would shudder at our 21st century disregard and disrespect of leaves and their essential role in the environment.

Leaves circulate through our lives in various ways and forms, connecting us. They return to the “feet of the trees,” W.S. Merwin writes in his poem “To a Leaf Falling in Winter.” Then they “…enter the big corridors/ of the roots into which they/ pass…” –the tree roots and our human roots, at the base of which is a nourishing bed of leaves, unless we blow them away. They may be “forgotten,” Merwin reports, but we should remember and celebrate their multiple gifts.

Trees are rooted, stationary; leaves are their mobile, other dimension. Sometimes a tree rains its leaves to the ground. Other times they fall one at a time, joining their family of leaves, resting for a while, until returning to duty in some other form. Grounded leaves absorb and witness.

Where would we be without leaves and their natural cycle of birth to death, which for some happens during the seasons of a single year? I do not understand the passion of some to use leaf blowers.

Perhaps partly what bothers the man with the hand-held, loud weapon is the death that the leaves expose. As the leaves decay, perhaps they remind him of his own pending demise. Perhaps this helps explain some of his hostility toward leaves and his unprovoked attacks. “Out, out damn leaves,” to paraphrase Lady Macbeth. But, alas, the blown away leaves often return, brought back by their dance partner—the natural wind. Or perhaps he is unaware of the deeper impacts of the machine?

In British poet Gerard Manley Hopkin’s famous poem “Spring and Fall: To A Young Child.” He writes about “…grieving /over Goldengrove unleaving.” But it was really Margaret that was being mourned as the leaves fell.

On my small farm I gather leaves each year and respectfully retire them in a final resting place on the berms of my boysenberry plants as mulch, which breaks down into compost, makes topsoil and feeds the berries. Oh, lovely leaf-fed berries. Leaves do many helpful things for humans and the Earth. The least we could do for them is let them rest in peace on the ground to which they gravitated and thus continue their contributions to the whole. Breaking such natural cycles of our ecosystem is not wise and produces unintended consequences.

As I look at piles of leaves, they sometimes seem like clouds. I see other creatures within them, perhaps those who came before them and made them or will come after them and be made of them. We are all connected, according to both mystics and physicists.

I even light up leaf piles, further transforming them. They snap, crackle, and pop, as if having a message for me. I respond. On my Uncle Dale’s Iowa farm in the late l940s we would collect wood ashes from the fireplace and stove and spread them on our fields. Ashes are like fallen leaves—that which remains. Ashes are alkaline, a good balance to the un-composted redwood needles, which are acidic. Everything that lives eventually falls apart and breaks down, even people.

I like to visit Robert Frost’s New England in the Fall, where I first noticed brilliant color. As the leaves change, I see how I can also change, imitating the patterns of nature. Leaves were my teacher; they have much to teach about nature, ourselves, and transformation. The foliage visibly evolves in New England. How beautiful the sugar maples are with their autumnal shine.

Do we really need to work so hard to control and dominate leaves? Must we spread the human war-making tendency to this gentle, defenseless creature?

I have an invitation. Bring your tired leaves to my farm. We will provide them an honorable place to rest in peace. We welcome them with open arms, knowing that they will devolve from mulch, to compost to topsoil. To paraphrase the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, poor, and huddled masses (of leaves),” and I will give them sanctuary.

I enjoy watching birds and squirrels scamper about playfully in leaves. My nearly two-year-old friend River Alfieri likes to pounce on life piles and offer me leaf gifts.

“Leaf blowers are weapons of mass destruction that do substantial collateral damage—to humans, bees, insects, plants, and the ground itself,” a friend noted. We should do something about them.

“Though I try hard to be conciliatory,” another friend noted, “you have convinced me that I must take sides. With the leaves!” Which side are you on?

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 14th, 2009 at 10:08am #

    I actually pick up bags of leaves on my way home from walks in neighborhood and dump them in my garden. I also scoop street leaves with my snow shovel and deposit them on my flower beds.
    I have also made a flower bed on the bullevard along the sidewalk. We need more plants and flowers and less grass. tnx

  2. lloyd said on December 14th, 2009 at 10:20am #

    In my small northern California town of Benicia, there is a “State Recreation Area” which is also a wildlife preserve. The Swartz has apparently proposed legislation that will close the park sometime before he departs office. I addressed an email plea to SaveSolanoParks. Com giving in a sentence my solution. (And addressing everything but the funding of my solution.) They have not replied.

    I wonder what could be banned to further my jogging and birdwatching… Automobiles? There is a large unused area near an entrance adjacent to where the present state employees stay, which could be made into a parking lot…. Housing? With some sort of wealth tax on the corporations who stand to be building right down to the waterline, once the park is abolished?

    Suggestions much appreciated.

  3. lichen said on December 14th, 2009 at 3:22pm #

    Bozh is right; leaves make good compost. They are also the trees natural method of providing it’s own mulch, so that it can preserve moisture in the ground and not die. People need to move beyond the idea of picture perfect lawns, and plant perrenial vegetables, berry bushes, fruit trees there instead; not produce noise and other types of pollution to maintain sterility.

  4. Nadine Sellers said on December 16th, 2009 at 9:48am #

    People watched me for years, gathering leaf bags and raking the local park in our small desert town. Many were openly quizzical or critical.
    As soon as my garden began to bear healthful vegetation and turn into a fast emerging oasis, looks turned to questions, then to discussions.
    Sadly i was unable to translate the miracle of continuum into solid action for most of these vicarious onlookers.
    After years of proof and example, the little town returned to the sterile efforts of gadgetry and chemistry; few ever thought the deep satisfaction of conservation and renewal was worth the joyful appreciation of what they perceived as hard work. No, no, not work, i said, pleasure in nature..