Oak leaves

Forty years ago, the developers who built the neighborhood where I live decided to construct houses in an oak forest without ripping out all the oak trees; they preserved as many as they could. So we have all the benefits of living among oak trees: the beauty, the shade, the wildlife. We also have the costs of living among oak trees: the falling leaves in autumn, the allergies. For me, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I don’t complain about the oaks or their leaves; I am distressed whenever a homeowner decides to remove oak trees from his or her property.

The city owns a giant vacuum cleaner truck that travels around the various neighborhoods, reaching each neighborhood two times every autumn, to pick up leaves from the curbside. They only pick up leaves within six feet of the street. Many homeowners rake their leaves to the curbside and let the piles sit there until the truck comes and takes them away. The city shreds the leaves and uses them as mulch in the city parks. I strongly approve of this policy.

My house is at the end of a cul de sac, one of five whose driveways lead into the circular turnabout. As a result, the property is a trapezoid rather than the traditional rectangle: tiny little front yard; expansive back yard and side yard. Because of this arrangement, I don’t have much of a curb for depositing leaves; the driveway consumes half of the curbside and the mailbox takes up another quarter, leaving four or five feet for the weekly garbage and biweekly recycling pickup. Some years I’ve tried piling leaves on those few square feet available, but my property receives far more fallen leaves than will fit in that area. Besides, putting leaves there leaves no room for the garbage and recycling containers. So, like many other people in the neighborhood, I bag my leaves and leave them to be picked up on Monday morning, not by the giant vacuum cleaner, but by the regular truck that carries lawn and garden waste to the dump. Unlike many other people in the neighborhood, I put my leaves in biodegradable paper bags rather than plastic bags. In two or three years, even in the city dump, my leaves and their bags will have become fertile soil that eventually will find its way into the city ecosystem to the benefit of other trees and various plants. Mrs. Dim’s leaves, on the other hand, will still be encased in plastic when her grandchildren have reached her present age, providing no benefit to anyone or anything.

Saturday morning Mrs. Dim was busy blowing her leaves into piles with a loud leaf-blower, shredding them with her mower, and then emptying the mower bag into large black plastic bags to leave on the street. She is one of several in the neighborhood who handle leaves in that fashion, so Saturdays are often accompanied by chorus of blowers and mowers from dawn to dusk.

Saturday afternoon I got out my rake and my “bearclaws” and my paper bags. (Bearclaws are like rakes without long handles. They fit over each hand to enable the user to scoop up copious amounts of leaves and drop them into a bag.) In about one hour I was able to clean leaves off the deck, the front lawn, and the driveway, filling nine bags. I stopped after that hour of work for three reasons. First, only eight bags fit on the curbside, two rows of four. Second, I generally refuse to spend more than an hour each week on lawn work. Third, an hour of raking and lifting and bending is about all my back and my allergies can handle. So the leaves in the back yard and the side yard will have to wait for another day—perhaps later this autumn, perhaps not until spring.

When I started working in the front lawn, Mrs. Dim was washing her car on her driveway. Mrs. Dim has a routine system of washing a vehicle with great attention to detail, often taking two hours or more to complete. She bellowed at me—Mrs. Dim never talks; she always bellows—”Hey, J., who do you think is going to win the War of the Leaves?”

I looked upwards. “My money is on the trees,” I told her. They’ve had a lot of years of practice, and they’re good at what they do.”

“I know,” she said. “I raked this morning, and look—you can hardly tell that I did it.” I could tell that she did it; there were a lot of black plastic bags piled on the street, but it was true that a few more leaves had fallen since the morning. “I’m going to wait two weeks before I rake again,” she announced.

“I think that’s a good plan,” I responded.

After that we both worked in relative silence. I enjoyed the shushing of the leaves as I raked and gathered them. I enjoyed the crunching as I walked through sections I had not yet raked. Unfortunately another neighbor was using his blower to clear his back yard, so I could not completely enjoy a peaceful afternoon, but it came close.

I imagined a further conversation with Mrs. Dim. I imagined her asking me why I was putting my bags of leaves back by the shed instead of leaving them at the curb until Monday morning’s pickup. I imagined me telling her that no one likes to look out their front window and see a pile of bags. I imagined her agreeing and saying that she always puts her trash next to the driveway so she doesn’t see them from the house. “I’ve noticed,” I would say, because her driveway and her trash are what I see when I look out the front window of my house.

That’s the price of having a trapezoidal lot with an expansive back lawn and side lawn and a tiny front lawn. When Mrs. Dim washes her car, it’s as if she’s doing it in our front lawn; it’s right outside our living room windows. When Mrs. Dim blows her leaves or mows and trims and edges, her noisy tasks are happening right in front of our house. When Mrs. Dim carries on a conversation with another neighbor or with someone on the telephone, her words are broadcast throughout our house. What can you do? It’s not criminal behavior you can report to the police; it’s just one of the nuisances of having neighbors.

I should have a clever concluding paragraph to wrap up this rambling account, but nothing comes to mind. Feel free to add a conclusion of your own devising. J.

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Gray November blues

I’ve been lethargic for the last two or three weeks, which is frustrating, because there are a number of projects I need to complete. I bought new strings for my guitar three weeks ago because the top string broke, but I haven’t taken the time to restring the guitar. I have replaced the railing on one side of the front steps, but the other side needs to be done too. I haven’t even raked leaves in more than a month. I’m sure that seems passive-aggressive to Mrs. Dim and my other neighbors, who have been frantically raking and bagging several times a week. But, in my defense, when the weather is good I’m busy doing other things; when I have time to rake leaves, it is raining or has recently rained and the leaves are wet. (Not that wet leaves stop Mrs. Dim from blowing and gathering and bagging leaves.)

For most of my life, I’ve lived in places where the trees are bare by Veterans’ Day. Even now November seems to bring gloom and fatigue. Five years ago I had just suffered a wrenching series of problems (which I now describe as the Mayan apocalypse). I think those memories are flavoring November this year. On top of that, I’ve been experiencing fierce tinnitus (ringing in the ears) all this autumn. It’s like hearing tree frogs day and night, only about two octaves higher.

Thursday afternoon, driving to teach a class, I suddenly had an unusual sense of well-being. I don’t know why—it may have been the blue sky and the unseasonably warm temperature. Anyhow, I felt good the rest of the evening. Friday brought me back down to earth. The contents of the storage shed which burned last spring had been taken for cleaning and were finally scheduled to be returned on Friday. I arranged to be off of work Friday morning, and I waited for the phone call from the delivery person. No call came. I was feeling increasingly stressed as noon approached. I tried calling the company, but only a machine answered the phone. I ate lunch, changed clothes, and drove to work. When I arrived, I had a message waiting on my phone. The company had given the driver my work number instead of my home number. I called him, agreed to meet him at one o’clock, got another employee to cover my responsibilities for the afternoon and drove home. It took about fifteen minutes for the two of us to unload the truck. (He thanked me for helping.) So now I have boxes of Christmas decorations waiting to be unpacked last month; and our traditional autumn decorations are in place finally, even though they were not out for Halloween.

Some people battle with frequent colds and others wrestle with allergies. My struggles are hidden inside of me, where no one else can detect or measure them. Even as simple an action as sifting through my WordPress Reader, clicking on posts, reading them, liking them, and perhaps commenting on them—even that pales after a few minutes and I turn to assembling a virtual jigsaw puzzle on the computer. This too shall pass; it always does. Blame the month of November. J.

A heavenly conversation

I wish I could take credit for writing this conversation. I must be honest, though, and confess that I found it at work this morning. The author is unknown; what I found was an email sent and printed in 2002. Aside from depicting the Creator as less than all-knowing, I think it is a very clever way of saying what I have been saying all along. J.

GOD: Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle, and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought, and multiply with abandon. The nectar from their long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees, and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colours by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord—the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds, and bees—only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it—sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut if off and pay to throw it away?

ST. PRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so Myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call “mulch.” They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this “mulch”?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have they scheduled for us tonight?

ST CATHERINE: “Dumb and Dumber.” Lord, it’s a really stupid movie about…

GOD: Never mind. I think I just heard the whole story from Francis.

 

Caretaker or controller?

This weekend most people in the neighborhood were busy with lawn care. Saturday, I had some work to get done indoors on the computer, so I missed the flurry of mowers and blowers. In fact, I put on some loud rock CDs to miss as much as the mowing and blowing as possible. I had to run an errand around three o’clock, and Mrs. Dim glared at me as I drove off. I wasn’t alone, and the other person noticed the glaring too. “I have leaves on my lawn,” I explained, “and she’s getting all the leaves off her lawn. This is very important to her.”

“What a sad excuse for a life,” my friend said.

Mrs. Dim got her work done yesterday. More than twenty large black bags line the curb along her yard. They are on the street (which is against the law) because she doesn’t want them on her grass. And only a few leaves have fallen on her lawn so far today.

This afternoon after lunch I got out my rake and my wheelbarrow and went to work. First I cleared the front lawn, moving all the loose leaves to the curb (but still on the grass by the curb, because it is illegal to put them on the street). The city will come by with a machine to pick up loose leaves within six feet of the curb; they will be turned to mulch and used by the park district. When the front lawn was clear, I started raking the back yard, carting loads of leaves to add to the pile by the curb in the front yard. After more than an hour I quit, both because my muscles were getting sore and because the pile of leaves within six feet of the curb was about as high as gravity will allow. I will continue the job another day.

Using the rake and the wheelbarrow, I was able to hear birds singing while I worked (except when another neighbor was using his mower). Leaving the leaves loose, I have the pleasure of knowing that they will become mulch instead of rotting in a landfill. I recently read that thirteen percent of the space in our nation’s landfills contains bagged leaves and lawn clippings that will merely decompose in their bags without doing good for anyone. I’m glad to know that the leaves that fell on my lawn can be mulch in my flowerbeds, and when my flowerbeds are full, the rest can be mulch elsewhere.

Mrs. Dim and I have very different philosophies about lawn care. She wants immediate gratification—she wants what she considers the perfect lawn today, and she is unconcerned about the world her grandchildren will inherit. I’m more interested in taking care of the entire world and leaving it better for my children and grandchildren. If it irritates the neighbors to see leaves on my lawn, I try not to let their attitude bother me. I remember that every bag of leaves I do not send to the landfill leaves the world a tiny bit better for future generations.

The philosophic difference is even larger, though. I see myself and my fellow human beings as caretakers of the world God made. Wherever possible, I try to work within the system the Creator established in his wisdom. If a patch of wildflowers appears on my property, I mow around it and let the flowers bloom. Mrs. Dim doesn’t want just to take care of her property. She wants to control her property. She calls the wildflowers weeds and poisons them so they don’t disturb her grass. She tends her flowerbeds so they contain only the flowers she planted there. She bags her leaves and then spends money for mulch at the store. She does not care to hear the birds sing while she controls her property. Mrs. Dim is not content with the world that the Creator designed; she is determined to improve it to meet her high standards.

When someone has a different approach to lawn care, Mrs. Dim glares at them while they drive off to do other tasks. When someone’s opinion is different from mine, I don’t glare at them. I just allow them to inspire another blog post. Enjoy your lawn, Mrs. Dim, and have a nice day. J.

Dim and Dimmer

Mrs. Dim hates autumn leaves almost as much as I hate the sound of leaf-blowers. She wages a steady campaign upon the leaves, determined to keep their time on her lawn and flowerbeds as short as humanly possible. Sometimes she uses a system that I have seen other people use on their property: She gets the blower out first and blows the leaves off her deck and driveway and out of her flowerbeds (and even off the street in front of her house), and then she uses the mower to gather, shred, and bag the leaves. Her system is efficient, if noisy. And then she has those lovely black bags sitting on the street by her green lawn for several days instead of those ugly leaves that she so hates.

Last Saturday morning I was working at the computer—part preparation for another week of teaching, part free-lance writing—when I heard the sound of her blower. Looking out the window, I saw the mower was out too, ready to go. My concentration was shot, and I had to pick up a few things from the store before the weekend was over, so I figured the time was ideal for me to get out of the house for about an hour. My daughter was doing homework, so I let her know where I was going and jumped into the car and escaped.

An hour later I returned home with my purchases. The neighborhood was quiet. I put my purchases away and sat down again at the computer. Then I heard the sound of Mrs. Dim’s lawnmower. She was at it again! I asked my daughter if Mrs. Dim had taken a break while I was gone. She said, “Well, she didn’t stop the instant you left, but she did take a pretty long break.”

It is hard not to be bitter about this. I’m sure she had her reasons, and they probably had more to do with conserving her energy than with annoying her neighbor. All the same, my brilliant plan to escape her noise was foiled. And the war on leaves continues.

A family bought a house down the street this summer. As they were moving in, they cut down two trees to make room for a storage shed. Since then, they have been removing trees at the rate of about one a month. Along with my abhorrence of the torturous chain-saw noise, my resentment at the murder of healthy trees is intense. When this subdivision was built, the designers preserved as many of the hardwood trees as they could. Every yard has several trees that are obviously older than the houses. These are healthy trees that shade the neighborhood (saving electricity that runs air conditioners in the summer), provide refuge for urban wildlife, and generally make life pleasant. In the autumn they coat the ground with beautiful brown leaves, fun for children to build leaf piles and bury themselves, fun even for adults like me to wade through, enjoying the crisp, crunchy sound and the memories of childhood that it stirs.

I understand that not everyone wants to live near trees. Some people just hate leaves, while others live in fear of a storm toppling a tree onto their house. People like that should buy houses that are not surrounded by trees. Not far away there are subdivisions where the builders cleared all the plants and topsoil off the land, built houses and streets, put down an inch or two of topsoil, and covered it with sod. A family that hates trees should buy a house in one of those subdivisions. It makes me very bitter to have them move into my neighborhood and start removing the trees with noisy chain saws.

Besides, they might give Mrs. Dim some bad ideas.

J.