Fall foliage funk


If you are one of those who look, and sometimes find, a silver lining, I challenge you. What’s good about scrub oak leaves? In fact, what’s good about oak trees? I can tell you what’s not good.

For example, the oaks that surround my house — even though I’ve thinned the dense scrub oak wilderness that existed when we bought the place — are ugly. This despite my efforts to leave in places a few with thick, straightish trunks and broad canopies. The best ones are hardly mighty. The worst are gnarly and uninspiring.

Then there are the acorns, tons of them this year, which may promise a wicked winter, but certainly not a silver lining. The DNA in these millions of acorns, each determined to drill through the anemic grass to repopulate the acres we’ve cleared, is not the DNA of glorious, soaring, spreading oaks, not the kind of alpha-oaks that from tiny acorns are supposed to grow. Rather, it is the DNA of a pedestrian but determined species, ever ready to recapture lost ground from folks like us, if we ever drop our guard. When they gather around the campfire, they snigger. These humans, they say, they come and go, we’ll be here long after they’re gone.

And finally, there are the leaves, the first crop of which has carpeted the lawn six inches deep. This windy autumn has stripped the trees earlier than usual, but not entirely. The leaves I’m working on now will give way to the millions smirking above me as I work. Now, they condescend. Soon they will descend.

From the vantage point of the acorns, the leaves are the duvet that warms and nurtures them in their devilish sprouting. It’s a formidable procreation system these oaks have.

If you yearn for a bit of good cheer, how’s this? Raking leaves can help you lose weight. That’s a good thing, but it’s not terrific. The best scientific estimate is that you can lose about 150 calories if you rake for 30 vigorous minutes straight. They’re not jogging numbers, or aerobics, and if you quit for a couple of hours to watch the game, with a beer, a sandwich, and some chips, you can be sure that the leaves will be winning the battle, and so will the fat cells.

That’s it for the good news.

If you go looking for advice on leaf removal, it’s a mix of romance and delusion. There’s lots of enthusiasm for the wonderful fall colors, but the colors these writers have in mind — a derivative of the concept of foliage —are not just brown, which is the color of every leaf in my yard.

There’s some attempt at emotional encouragement, and I can use a lot of that. These damn leaves have undermined what I would describe as my naturally buoyant, good-humored emotional constitution. I sit at dinner, uninterested in the food, staring through the window at the accumulating mess. In conversation with my wife, I find my head twisting unpredictably as my eye catches a leaf falling to my left, another to my right.

“You aren’t listening, are you,” she says, not sweetly. She’s right. I’m jumpy and distracted.

For the leaf-oppressed, advice is widely available. Make raking a fun, family event. Mull some cider, rake some leaves, get the kids involved. The work will be done in no time.

Bunk. The kids aren’t around, especially if I’ve mentioned the leaves. The cider sounds okay, but I know it will prove counter-cyclical.

Don’t rake, blow the leaves away. Silly. We’re talking a couple of acres here, and where should I blow them to? The neighbors’ property, the road?

Mulch them? There are two sides to this suggestion. Some experts say mulch and you don’t have to remove. Others say that if you’ve a lot of leaves, you’ll have to rake anyway. I don’t know what six inches by two acres figures to be in leaf volume, but the result after mulching would probably be a two-inch rather than a six-inch shag.

Forget them altogether, don’t bother? Right. That’s giving up, after all these years. That’s accepting that this was never meant to be a lawn. It was meant to be woods, woods with misshapen, useless oaks popping through the debris at ten-inch intervals, gargoyle-like, as if from the grave. Can’t do that.

So, I’ve been windrowing this year’s first cutting of leaves. Later, probably this weekend, I’ll use the leaf brush I bought last year to pick them up and dump them on the compost pile. The brush tows behind the lawnmower, and it works pretty well some of the time. It enlarges my carbon footprint, of course, and using it daily through December pretty much mulches my mood, but I think that if I can make it to Christmas, the snow will hide what leaves remain, and for a few months the flora will be blessedly dormant, as will I.