These days, I'm wondering what we will tell our children and grandchildren about the world we are leaving them. I wonder what excuses we will offer. We didn't know what we were doing? We didn't care? We had more important things to worry about?
Our world is alive. Earth has its rhythms and cycles. Here on Long Island, shorebirds are gathering for migration, the goldenrods are flowering, and soon the leaves will fall. This is a pattern, part of the living texture woven to sustain life. Yet we do almost all we can to isolate ourselves, our species, from this complex design.
Falling leaves are part of the pattern. They provide shelter for the insects that pollinate our flowering world. They nourish the soil, the invisible living world of microbes and fungi, without which there would be no plants. They keep the soil alive, and in doing so, they provide almost innumerable benefits we take for granted, but without which our world suffers in ways most of us never even consider.
Yet we will employ an army of blowers to fill the autumn air with noise, fumes, and fine, lung-damaging dust. We will kill the insects and larvae sheltered in the leaves. We will deprive the soil of its nutrients, so that, come spring, we employ an army of lawn doctors to artificially fertilize the ground. Much of this fertilizer will then run off when we overwater the earth, increasingly compacted and hardened by a loss of soil life.
We take. We take, and we take. But what do we give back? Every year I think this will be the summer we wake up. Droughts, floods, record temperatures in the Arctic, orange air days from boreal forest fires, toxic algal blooms, closed fishing zones, massive heat domes across the nation. What will it take to get us to reimagine our place in this world?
This year, when the leaves fall, maybe we should let nature have its way. There are lots of options if you don't want to completely let go of the cultural norms that have gotten us into the mess we are in:
Rake leaves under and around the bases of trees to provide "soft landings" for the insects that will drop from these trees in the spring as part of their early life cycle. You can do this in symmetrical patterns that show your intentions, so that it's clear that you are not simply neglecting your lawn duties.
Rake them to compost around your shrubs.
And for heaven's sake, don't remove them from the wooded areas of your property!
If you worry about leaves smothering your lawn, find an area where you can let them compost naturally and rake them there.
Maybe think about reducing your lawn and letting it return to native landscaping. There are attractive options, from meadows to shrubby grasslands, to replace lawn monocultures.
Finally, if you still have too many leaves, mulch them by running a lawn mower over them before they pile too deeply. This will at least help nourish the soil, but will, unfortunately, kill overwintering insects. I find that by spring, there's little sign of the leaves mulched in fall.
But what about the ticks? Here are some simple facts and suggestions:
First, the Centers for Disease Control and peer-reviewed research show no correlation between yard spraying for ticks and a reduction of tick-borne illnesses.
Instead of spraying, segregate your yard into places for recreation and places for nature to do its thing. Keep your well-tended lawns and paths for where you actually spend time. Let nature have the rest.
Protect yourself. Apply C.D.C.-approved tick repellents to your clothing and body. Dress properly! Consider buying clothing permeated with tick protection.
There is no substitute for vigilance and self-examination. (I tend my woodland garden and native meadow from early spring through autumn. I spend a lot of time outdoors. I've had one tick bite this year, and I removed it promptly after one of my periodic self-inspections. I dress carefully and pay attention.)
When my well-intentioned neighbors tell me that they have to remove leaves or spray for ticks because of their children or grandchildren, I usually shut up. But I want to ask, what kind of world do you want to leave them? We can't keep killing everything and not suffer the consequences. We humans have upset the balance. Destroying finely tuned ecologies is not protecting the world our grandchildren will inherit.
Leave the leaves, please. Nature knows what it is doing.
Leonard Green, who grew up spending summers in Azurest, Sag Harbor, has been an East Hampton resident for nearly 30 years. He is a co-founder of ChangeHampton and a board member of ReWild Long Island.