When the languid air of summer is at last exhaled and the crisp promise of fall arrives, all can seem right with the world. The lawn is still warm and soft underfoot and the golden hour of sunset lingers on. Here in the East, it’s never greener. So when that early orange leaf lights upon the grass, we welcome the contrast.
But nothing gold can stay. Soon, the driving rains arrive — remnants of some hurricane far worse out at sea — and overnight the leaves untether, flying helter-skelter until the lawn is smothered in them.
When leaves have done their office — turning sunlight into food, angling to get this light, angling to shade the light coming through, absorbing the soot from cars that idle beneath — they dry up and let go. And so, we retreat to the toolshed.
It is not so much a time enchanted with the amethyst, this fall I’ve come to know since coming to the Eastern shores, as one menaced by the two-stroke engine of the leaf blower. Once mid-October comes, the guttural warning growl begins across the sleepy morning, like a dog over a bone. And then, as if a hand tried to snatch it away, the noise ratchets up, snarling across the valley below, rattling over 100 decibels, audible for acres around.
The leaf hunter will not be suppressed, settling for a few mere leaves at a time, against the wind, the wet, and even the frozen dew. The goal, it would seem, is to have it look as though there never had been leaves there at all.
There is a point to clearing leaves. Left unchecked, they can mold into wet blankets, block out the sun and suffocate the grass. But there’s a way to do it that is actually quiet, and far more Puritanically satisfying: using a rake.
Mine is metal-toothed and spritely. It leans, ever-ready, beside the shovel all through the year. It doesn’t need gas, it doesn’t scald the ground with 150 m.p.h. winds, and with its supple foam cuffs, it doesn’t even need gloves. If you can run a broom across a floor, you can comb the grass with a rake. It’s this very mindlessness that invites the meditation.
When I rake, my heart rate climbs gently and my mind opens widely. I think of the chapter I’m about to teach, the penchant for savory breakfasts in faraway cultures, the massiveness of these trees — whatever beams in from the infinite sky above. Because I can physically see the work getting done, I view things with a beneficence I can’t summon in life’s more static moments.
Quite often, though, I think about the rhythm of raking itself. I side-shuffle, side-shuffle, deftly flick the rake, switch hands, then side-shuffle back the other way. Sometimes I go in rows; sometimes I shuffle toward a center pile, as if I’m drawing the rays of the sun. When I stop and look up, yes, I think about Frost’s “The Sound of Trees”: “My feet tug at the floor / And my head sways to my shoulder / Sometimes when I watch trees sway.”
As a kid trying to rush through my list of chores, I took to the lawn as I did my English muffins, going for the buttery center, with all its nooks and crannies of leaves. But over time, I’ve become partial to the peripheries, where leaves hide under the junipers and mingle with the moss. Some of the season’s best strokes happen here. There’s one spot you can only hit if you use two or three corner tines. And then there’s that long run of wooden fence I save for last, biting in with downward pokes against the firm catch.
Raking is about as close as most of us will get to farming. Over a 60-year life, that oak in your field will pump out nearly two tons of foliage, putting most of its nutrients right back into the soil. That’s your harvest. Go ahead and shape those little islands and eskers of leaves; then pull an anti-Pangea, bring them together, and admire the produce.
These are temporal portraits of your achievement and they are bound for the canvas you are hauling between the rows. How quickly it fills as you persuade those heaps of leaves, sometimes even guiding your foot into the meat of the rake. Reach down and get those last handfuls — the acorns, the dead grass, the old and the newly fallen leaves. Breathe in that aroma of ripe decay.
Raking is not necessarily a solitary sport. In theory, it’s offered my daughters sorely needed lessons in physical labor. In practice, it’s occasion for leaf-raking parties. This year, imagine your neighbors coming into your yard not just through the noisy machines they’ve hired, but as themselves, perhaps in flannel, sharing an earnest afternoon. If you have a lawn and possibly a rake, you can make this happen.
Failing that, there’s the mulching lawnmower. But please, not the leaf blower.
Tim Donahue teaches high school English in New York City and writes about climate change, education, and endurance sports. He formerly had a house at Lazy Point, Amagansett.