When I was a kid I read a book of Cherokee legends. The story of the beginning of the world stayed with me because, according to it, all animals, plants, and trees were tested by having to stay awake for seven days and nights. Some animals—rabbits, mice, even deer—fell asleep. They became prey for the ones who stayed awake: the mountain lion, the wolf, the owl. Some of the trees managed to stay awake too. These were the pine and cedar, so they would be evergreen. Other trees didn’t pass the test, and I still remember the line: “Unable to stay awake they would sleep part of each year, and lose their hair in winter.”
I’d never thought of leaves as tree hair before that, and not just because leaves grow back while most people I know who lose their hair lose it permanently, but I still liked the phrase. And yet it didn’t explain what, to me, was the biggest mystery of all: why so many people felt it necessary to rake and bag leaves in their yards. Most put the leaves in their garbage cans, as though the trees were purposely throwing trash around. It seems like an insult to the trees. It would be different if they were sneaking over to someone else’s yard and throwing down a bunch of leaves then running back in the middle of the night, like a bunch of kids having a toilet paper party. That is something I did once—a toilet paper party, I mean, not dropping a bunch of leaves, and even though I was a teenager at the time it still seemed like a stupid thing to do.
And at least leaves are bio-degradable. Technically toilet paper is too, but leaves land there naturally, and toilet paper tends to stand out against the landscape, at least as long as it’s fresh out of the package and hasn’t been used previously, but that’s another story.
Why clear away leaves? People love to see the changing colors: the reds and yellows of trees on hills in the all-too short, beautiful time before the fall to the ground, before they turn brown and papery and crackle underfoot. Once the leaves have been shed they blanket the ground providing insulation, protection, safe spaces for next year’s insects, and nesting material for squirrels and other animals. They’ll give back to the soil what they took from it, passing it on to the next generation. A clean yard is a terrible thing, the rake and leaf blower instruments of destruction.
Well, I do use them to keep the leaves away from the doors. Tracked in underfoot they won’t do anyone any good. We don’t need leaves in the house, where we sleep.