The Secrets of Leaves

892 total words    

4 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Scott Robinson, "Sycamore Leaves" (Creative Commons license 2.0)

The roaring din of leaf blowers up and down the street brings to mind an airport tarmac full of jumbo jets. My neighbors are removing fallen leaves by blowing them into piles. I rake and rake, and yet leaves still blanket my yard. Because I remove leaves by hand, I spend hours doing what my neighbors do in minutes. Even so, I feel sad about what they’re missing. Because there are whispers of wisdom in a pile of leaves.

In the midwestern United States, leaves are ubiquitous in autumn, adopting myriad colors and falling to the ground. With their announcement of the transition from the growing season to winter’s cold comes the task of raking leaves, which consumes considerable time and energy. For convenience, many people use leaf blowers to collect leaves into piles. But I find leaf blowers too noisy. Plus, I’m concerned about the carbon emissions they generate. The most important reason I dislike leaf blower noise, though, is that it drowns out the voices of the leaves—the songs they sing, the poems they recite, and the tales they tell.

A neighbor, observing my leafy labors one day, offered to let me use her leaf blower. I thanked her but declined, telling her that I dislike the noise they make and that I’d rather rake. She looked at me as if I had tentacles sprouting from my head. Imagine if I had told her that I was listening to the leaves beneath my rake.

The leaves tell of diversity, of the many types of trees and shrubs that provide shelter in the neighborhood. Most leaves in our yard come from sycamore trees lining the parkways.  Enormous—like cinnamon-colored dinner plates—sycamore leaves cover the yard like a crinkly carpet. It’s curious how trees that look so sparse in the summer produce so much leaf litter in the fall. 

This cinnamon sycamore carpet is augmented by a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, and red maple leaves from trees in nearby yards. Mingling in are ruffled yellow leaves from our neighbor’s birch—looking somewhat like potato chips—and small, red oval leaves from the burning bush (Euonymus alatus) I need to remove. 

Each leaf in the mix has a secret story it guards. From where do the brown, shriveled oak leaves originate? I wasn’t aware we had oaks in the neighborhood, so I took a walk around the block and found two oaks a block to the north. I’ve never met the people who live in the houses where the oaks grow, but I know their leaves, which visit me every autumn. 

Some leaves sing of the citizens of leaf litter. As I flourish my rake, a sycamore tussock moth flushes from a dense cluster of leaves. My annoyance with the overabundance of sycamore leaves turns to gratitude as I examine the creamy-beige camouflage of this delicate-looking moth.

Some leaves have insect galls. I find myself wondering, when I remove these leaves, am I eliminating future generations? Or have the young insects already emerged? And what if I left these leaves on the ground as nature intends? Buried as leaf litter under the snow, they’ll provide an overwintering refuge for many beings. The leaves make suggestions for places in the yard where leafy nurseries should remain for the winter.

Beyond tales of biodiversity, the leaves also suggest deeper contemplations about human experience. One transports me back to childhood and the joys of crisp autumn days: jumping in piles of leaves, the aroma of burning leaves from neighbors’ yards hugging my hair and clothes, and standing next to Dad in the smoky, warm halo of our own leafy blaze. All of these I find in the leaves.

My wandering thoughts turn to the hurt of losing several family members and friends over the past year. But the leaves offer hope to quell the hurt. Their whispers call to mind The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, a popular book in the 1980s. In it, author Leo Buscaglia created an allegory for the cycles of life, as Freddie the leaf and his companions experience nature’s changing seasons and ultimately face their own deaths.

At dawn the wind came that took Freddie from his branch. It didn’t hurt at all. He felt himself float quietly, gently and softly downward. As he fell, he saw the whole tree for the first time. How strong and firm it was! He was sure that it would live for a long time and he knew that he had been part of its life and made him proud. 

Freddie landed on a clump of snow. It somehow felt soft and even warm. In this new position he was more comfortable than he had ever been. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. He did not know that Spring would follow Winter and that the snow would melt into water. He did not know that what appeared to be his useless dried self would join with the water and serve to make the tree stronger. Most of all, he did not know that there, asleep in the tree and the ground, were already plans for new leaves in the Spring.

The leaves didn’t write these words, but they communicate them to me in tones gentle and comforting. No, the convenience of leaf blowers is not worth missing what can be heard from a pile of leaves. 

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  • Francie Muraski-Stotz

    After receiving a master's degree in Evolutionary Biology from The University of Chicago, Francie Stotz spent 16 years developing exhibitions at The Field Museum. As a freelance writer/developer, she has continued translating science for the general public.

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