By Dana Swanson
The days are shorter, mornings are crisper and leaves are littering the ground - all indications that it is officially autumn.
From spreading newspaper over the kitchen tile while carving pumpkins to picking apples and munching on apple cider donuts, the fall brings with it many traditions for my family. One of my lesser favorites is the afternoon we commit to raking the leaves from the yard. I'd rather be jumping in piles of leaves, not raking them. Provoked by my childish stubbornness to do chores, I usually questioned why we bothered raking.
However, my sentiments about the usefulness of leaves changed when I interned at a chemical-free farm a few summers ago. Each fall, Wesley Acres Produce receives truckloads of leaves collected by the nearby city of Moline, IL. The massive wall of leaves shrinks during winter, releasing heat as it decomposes. By the summer, the leaves are ready to be used as compost.
I had the pleasure—and I use that word loosely—of spreading the decaying leaves between the rows of crops. Not only do the leaves keep the weeds down, the act as a natural fertilizer for the plants. When I pitchforked the leaves from the back of a wagon into the rows, the scent from the compost was overpowering. The odor was pungent, yet not necessarily unpleasant. As the leaves decomposed, they release an earthy aroma—it is rich in substance and similar to the smell of the woods after rainfall.
When we collect leaves to be burned, we prevent them from fulfilling their role as soil enhancers. The leaves should continue the natural cycle, contributing a layer of humus, enriching local soils and local culture. As Wendell Berry notes in The Work of Local Culture,
“A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself--in lore and story and song--and that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.”
Every autumn the leaves will fall—let them. If leaves must be cleared, use a rake. Listen to the rustling teeth of the rake grazing the grass instead of the obnoxious leaf blower’s scream. Rather than burn leaves, use them as compost in the garden. Think outside the curbside yard waste collection box this autumn.