The Passing of Life and Autumn

(Originally published in the Chicago Tribune 11/12/1994)

The leaves are falling faster than I can rake them. I try not to think about that, about the futility of my task. I prefer to look ahead, to keep pushing forward, to fill the leaf bags to their brim, stomp them down, and fill them even more. Looking backward at the bare green swath I just raked, I see dozens of new leaves falling there like so many russet parachutes floating to the grass. Seeing that tends to make me a little crazy.

My work would certainly go much faster if I were to use the giant leaf blower my husband just bought on sale at the hardware store. Instead, it’s just me and my rake; one of those basic dark green metal ones. A few of the prongs are slightly bent, but it does a remarkable job. The perfect tool for such a task.

To me, blowing leaves with a leaf blower is not the same as raking leaves by hand. The noise of it is a total antithesis to the pleasure of being out on an autumn day. With a leaf blower on I wouldn’t have heard the honking of Canada geese flying overhead, nor would I have heard the scolding my cat Edward got from a perturbed squirrel whose territory he had encroached upon. Even worse, I might have scared away the two young deer who strolled down our neighborhood street in the late afternoon, just as the sun was starting its silent slip into twilight.

If I hadn’t raked the leaves that day, I wouldn’t have the memory I have now of watching those deer along with my children and several neighbor children. The children were all perfectly quiet and stood stock still without being told.

No matter how many times I see deer in the neighborhood, I still feel overwhelming awe at their beauty. I get the same feeling as when I hear a beautiful piece of music or see a masterpiece of art.
. . . . .
It is a warm day for October, and sweat starts to trickle past my ribs after about the fourth bag of leaves. I am probably getting a bit of a sunburn, but it feels good to be out, working in the sun. It seems that everyone is out, sensing that this could be one of the last warm days before winter hits us. That makes this day all the more precious.

During my hours in the yard, I wave at or greet dozens of people. Teenagers on Rollerblades, mothers pushing strollers, an older couple who walk the neighborhood every day, a man who pushes a severely disabled young woman (his daughter?) in a wheelchair. I see him walking her often. I really must introduce myself next time. How does he cope? Through love, I suppose.
. . . . .
My own children provide several setbacks to the task at hand, which is to get as many leaves as possible into bags. They want me to rake all the leaves into one giant pile near the fence, so that they can leap off the fence and soar into the leaves. Of course, I let myself be talked into this.
They spend a lot of time, along with other kids who happen by, jumping into the leaf pile, for the sheer pleasure of it. They are like overgrown puppies, jumping, yelping, rolling in the leaves. They soon have bits of dry leaves stuck all over their clothing and in their hair. They make me smile. Soon they will be too old for this sort of thing, so I must remind myself to be patient, to sit and enjoy their exuberance.

One day, when we first moved to our house, my daughter and I counted the trees on our property. We had moved to Illinois from California, where we had a palm tree that occasionally dropped a brown frond to the ground and an orange tree that bore the juiciest navel oranges you ever dreamed of. We didn’t even own a rake there.

We were surprised to count fifty trees, counting the lilac bushes, which since they are very overgrown resemble trees more than bushes. Our lot is not huge; it is average by suburban standards, but our neighborhood is heavily wooded and has many mature trees. That is one thing that drew us to the area we settled in. We could have gotten a much newer home in a new subdivision, but we would have had to settle for a few saplings.

We opted for the trees, although I cannot really say why. I mean, when you get right down to it, having a lot of trees on your property can be a downright pain. You have to water them. You have to prune them. Their branches can be ripped out in a severe storm and end up embedded in someone’s roof. Their roots can do all sorts of things I don’t even want to think about.

But, as we have lived in this house, we have come to love the trees. They encircle us with their branches. They provide homes for the dozens of sweet-sounding birds who croon us to sleep on warm summer nights. One provides a thick sturdy branch for a rope swing where countless hours have been spent by children laughing and talking
. . . . .
The trees in autumn sound different. There is a rustling, a bustling, as they prepare themselves for the next cycle of life. There is nothing that can stop this cycle. It is as natural as breathing. Trees in autumn bring into focus more clearly than at any other time the rush of the seasons and of life itself. One day, you are picnicking at the lake, and the next day you are putting together Halloween costumes. The next day, everything is stark and bare (except, thank God, for the evergreens), reminding us more harshly than we want to be reminded that time marches on whether we want it to or not.
. . . . .
My cat has found the pile of leaves that the children abandoned. He is the exact color of oak leaves. A neighbor walks by and jokingly asks why I am bothering, motioning to the flurry of russet and orange that rains from the sky above me. I think of the squirrels, the deer, a certain ginger tabby, a group of children with rosy cheeks and excited eyes. I think of Canada geese arcing toward predestination. I think of time, slipping by me so quickly that I am powerless to hold it back. I may as well try and stop the leaves from falling.

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