It was supposed to be a father-son job, one raking, the other bagging, or both doing each—and for a while, it was. Or rather, two solo jobs: me in the backyard, Matt along the driveway. Something about claiming your own territory, maybe. We merged for a while in Matt's side, moving his golden piles by the armload into a hungry leaf bag. Then lunch called Matt upstairs and a band practice took him away. I remained to be the man in the yard, raking leaves. A classic, seasonal role. An inspiration to the neighborhood.
As tasks go, it's a good one. It's outside. It's cold but I'm dressed appropriately. I've got on last winter's gloves and a fleece hoodie and green Red Sox stocking cap. I've got the simple but specialized tools of the craft, the triangular rake and the tall yard waste bag. And it's a finite task, limited by so many leaves over so much yard, and no more.
The leaves are obliging travelers. They have yielded to the journey, however long it lasts. Some are wet, some dry. Some cling to the hooked plastic, or wooden, teeth of the rake and have to be removed by hand. Some still have bright colors and patterns. Others are dark and sodden, belonging to the soil more than the tree. They have good wet, mulchy smells. And engaging with them adds to the soundscape of the street—the laconic scrape...scrape...of rake on asphalt, softer on grass; the rumbustious, cornflakesy, crush of leaves in leaf bag, shaken and pushed down to half their initial volume.
It's amazing how many leaves you can get in those bags. Whole mountains disappear into them. But their capacity is not unlimited. A printed instruction says to fill bag no higher than dashed line, to which you must roll and crimp top of bag. (There's a verb you don't see too often in American signage. Crimp.)
I don't think these bags existed when I was a kid on Nutmeg Lane in Stamford. Back in the fifties, the autumn ritual was burning leaves. We carried them, I suppose, in big bushel baskets or by the wheelbarrowful to the foot of the driveway and the grownups tended to the controlled blaze, deep inside the leaf mountain, in shifting billows of smoke that got in your eyes and clothes, but who cared? It was exciting, and it smelled great, and it certainly did the job. The pall of smoke rose high above the neighborhood like a benediction. (This was long before air pollution and global warming existed, of course.)
Is it good for the leaves? I ask myself. Should I rake them to the edges of the yard, let them be mulch for the bushes, where older generations of leaves lie a-mouldering in their graves? I'm not even sure where the leaf bags will end up. Landfill, I suppose. Is it okay to take them so far away from their trees? But the tree evicted them, and the wind proposed a journey with no fixed destination. We're extending that adventure, maybe. And it's better, most would now agree, than cremation.
These are the mortuary thoughts of a man raking leaves. As they fall, so will he rake. Amen.
Coda: Chasing Red
We had planned to take a walk, just down to Spy Pond, at 4:30. But I got involved with trying to help Charlie, Carol's dad, with a new flash drive, and by the time I came back upstairs it was getting dark—the new, early dark. So we gave up on the walk. But five or ten minutes later, Carol called me urgently into the kitchen. The sky behind the neighbor's backyard was suffused in raspberry, rose, red. If I hadn't gone downstairs, if we'd taken our walk, we'd have been down at Spy Pond to see that over the water. But not too late, maybe. A quick walk! Get your shoes on! Out we ran. Emerging on Mass. Ave, Walgreen's was silhouetted against that still glorious rubescent sky. Still time! But the horizon was drinking it down faster than we knew. By the time we'd made it down Linwood to the Pond, only a band of pink remained, like a faint milk moustache. Got sunset? Not anymore. Nearby, on the shore, a photographer's lit umbrella shone as white as a moon. A fortuitously timed fashion shoot. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not fashions or sunsets. Or maybe everything lasts forever, but not in one place. The red had ridden off to the west, pursued by a rapid shadow. Holding on to our kitchen souvenir, we went home.