My 90-something-year-old neighbor is almost blind. She might still see the shapes of trees and the color of them in full leaf. She might even see the blanket of the spent ones, assuming she let them pile up. She doesn’t.
Her yard man comes nearly every weekend with his trailer loaded with equipment. In December, the neighborhood trees hung on to half of their leaves—the drop is late in the South—but the ones that had fallen on her lawn met with a 200 mph windstorm. A relentless, two-hour onslaught.
My patience exhausted, I left the house. As I drove off, I glanced at our littered yard then noticed the spotless little grasslands on the rest of the block. Black plastic bags hid the dead. Once, I would have been shamed by our violation of social norms. No more. I appreciate the crisp rustle and tumble until Todd mows it into confetti compost.
We’re the third owners of an International Style house built in 1950. The architect—who claimed no aesthetic inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian period—chose a site in a new neighborhood that had mature trees. Attendant to mid-century modern practicality, he intentionally positioned the house’s longest facade to face south. He understood the value of deciduous trees. Shade in the summer, sun in the winter. He left several large swamp chestnuts standing and allowed a few young ones the chance to grow. A patch of urban forest thrived.
In 1960, he leveled most of the back yard and used part of the space for a regulation tennis court. Not long after his death, we asked his family why the court had been installed. One of his daughters laughed. “He hated to rake,” she said.
I joined in, remembering my grandfather. He hated to rake, too, and had no trees on his property, a small lot in an established neighborhood otherwise full of trees. I did not inherit his disdain.
When we bought the house, the tennis court had succumbed to the earth’s slow shift. Cracks and rifts buckled the concrete. Sink holes threatened to swallow legs up to the knee.
These hazards were hidden under two autumns’ worth of fallen leaves. The second owner—following the architect—rented the house to various tenants for years. The last ones left the property a wreck. We, the third owners, had considerable clean up to do.
Two scrappy teenagers we hired stuffed dozens of plastic bags full of leaves. In the damp patches that remained, rich soil coated the hard gray surface, alive with microbes and worms. I scooped this up when I could and sprinkled it under the trees, who made the mess in the first place. I stood in the sink holes where the roots of long-dead trees had disappeared from their graves. I imagined the woodland that might have been.
After we had the tennis court removed, the clay valley received fifteen yards of river silt. Fertile enough to sustain grass, the silt was seeded with centipede. For two years, it crept and endured with water and hope. Our mulching mower chopped the green blades and dry leaves. The decay would yield topsoil.
The return had begun.
Bill, a native plant expert, smiled with affection as he peered up at my favorite swamp chestnut. Its thick canopy cast deep shade in the afternoon. Here and there was a fallen leaf the size and shape of a cow’s ear. The ground under some of its roots was barren except for a blanket of leaves. We’d removed the iron plants that choked together near its trunk some time before.
“This is what it wants,” Bill said as he pointed at the ground.
“What? Leaves?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s it’s food,” he said. “Spread them as far as you can.”
I kept my mouth shut. What a dolt, I thought to myself. My well-conditioned concept of a proper yard shattered with a sudden, but obvious, revelation. Grass was not normal under trees. Leaves, moss, ferns, and shrubs were. What forest had St. Augustine, centipede, or any other variety of turf growing across its floor?
“I want to create a woodland in the back here,” I said. The tennis court had become a wide boring rectangle of green.
Bill smoothed his beard. “Start with leaves. As many bags as you can get. Pile them up and let them decay to build the soil. Do this for a few years. You’ll have to pull a few weeds and any trees that sprout. Otherwise, it’s low maintenance.”
That fall, Todd and I spent Sunday mornings collecting what our neighbors diligently bagged and left at the curbs as trash. We received askance glimpses as we filled the truck bed with our roadside loot. I noticed the grassy front lawns. Ours looked—and would continue to look—no different. A polite concession to real estate, and community, values. But part of the back yard would be released to some wildness.
I turned myself over to patience, tentative as a new leaf.
These few years later, fourteen trees root into ground that was once covered with concrete. Under their young canopies, I can scratch into sweet soil and find the creatures responsible for the black gold. The red bud will come into flame soon. The fig tree might produce enough for the mockingbirds and us. The maple, hornbeams, and winged elm promise respite from the August heat. The slow-growing swamp chestnuts struggle to reach deeper into the clay.
Next fall, we won’t have to raid our neighbors’ curbs for leaves. I expect the trees will have enough to feed themselves.
What becomes of them will turn into memory. The young trees join the cycles of my human years, my growing appreciation for change and the assurance of return.
The presumptuous and their eager green, frostbitten
Wise pecan, trustworthy officiate of spring, unfurled
Merciful shadows, blessed shade, summer in and out
Doodle bugs under the magnolia perfumed with spiced decay
Small blistered hands cool in the pile, the reward for raking
A gust of visual birdsong—the notes flutter down, down, down
Pneuma and terra dance the fairy whirlwind
Empty grasp at the blue, the gray, to be filled again with new life