Chasing the leaves of autumn into winter



It felt like a race against time standing among the swirling oak, sycamore and maple leaves that would blow toward Minnesota one moment and Missouri the next.

This was Monday afternoon and the temperature was still unseasonably warm with the thermometer pushing the mercury toward the upper 60s. But with dark foreboding storm clouds massing in the southwest and northeast and the constantly shifting wind increasing in intensity, the fast-approaching front promised dramatically different temperatures in tow.

If I wanted to get this year’s yard work done while still wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I’d better hurry. Mother Nature wasn’t going to wait for me. Autumn was trying to make a quick getaway and winter was in hot, nay cold, pursuit.

The two main objectives on this rare day at home was to mulch as many of the omnipresent leaves as possible and to spread a huge pile of wood chips left in the yard by arborists who had several days earlier pruned the two venerable pin oak trees that dominate our front and back yards. No doubt the shovel, rake and lawnmower would be up to the task; the pressing question was whether my arms and back could meet the challenge with equal determination.

When it comes to yard work, my muscles are dreadfully out of shape, and Father Time isn’t the sole reason and excuse for the lack of inactivity. As many of you know, I recently returned from northern Minnesota where I had spent the past two years, including three autumns, living in our cabin in the Superior National Forest. Raking leaves in the forest is akin to shoveling snow in the Arctic. People just don’t do it.

Despite lingering symptoms from a cold and a sore hand from recent carpal tunnel surgery, I jumped into the project with all the zeal I could muster. Wood chips flew and a small corner of the pile shrunk as the tools attacked the mountain of chips, spreading them over the hosta and bleeding heart garden that encircles the base of one of the oaks.

Within a few minutes, I was gassed.

Bent over and gasping for breath I realized I needed a change of strategy if I wasn’t going to end up as a cardio patient in the emergency room at Mary Greeley Medical Center. The new plan: switch back and forth between spreading the chips and mulching the leaves in our yard with the lawnmower.

The latter job sounded relatively easy on the surface. Take off the grass catcher bag and the side discharge cover of the mower and speed across the lawn chopping the leaves as I went. Simple.

I’ve never been one who feels compelled to rake and bag leaves. Romantic and nostalgic images captured on canvas with paint by the late outdoors master artist Terry Redlin aside, I’ve always been more utilitarian in my approach to dealing with leaves. I view them as an asset rather than a liability, something to appreciate rather than to curse and view as a bane at the top of the annual autumn chore list.

Each year some of the leaves end up in each of our three compost bins where they eventually break down into rich organic matter that’s added to the flower and vegetable gardens. The rest get shredded by the lawnmower blade and left on the lawn where the mulched leaf litter adds nutrients to the soil, supports the grass by helping the ground retain moisture and by providing food for microbes and worms, which help aerate the soil.

It all seemed good in theory. That is until pausing to take in the scene I had to come to terms with the fact that the wind was increasing even more and the leaves were refusing to stay in one spot for more than an instant.

I started the mower with the intent of making nice neat strips around our yard but quickly abandoned the idea in favor of zigzagging back and forth in hot pursuit of the seemingly wanton leaves as they migrated from our yard to one of our neighbors’ and then back again.

What normally would take 15 to 20 minutes to mow our front and back yards turned into an hour and then more as the old leaves were joined by new ones falling from the trees overhead. To onlookers, I must have looked like a deranged squirrel trying to remember where it had cached a storehouse of acorns — here, there, everywhere.

In the end, though, I finally got the wood chips spread and a majority of the leaves mulched with only back, neck, shoulder and arm aches to suffer for my trouble. Whether any of the neighbors or anyone driving by saw me and thought I had gone completely off the deep end is a verdict that has yet to be rendered and perhaps another story for a different day.


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