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My 90-something-year-old neighbor is almost blind. She might still see the shapes of trees and the color of them in full leaf. She might even see the blanket of the spent ones, assuming she let them pile up. She doesn’t.

Her yard man comes nearly every weekend with his trailer loaded with equipment. In December, the neighborhood trees hung on to half of their leaves—the drop is late in the Southbut the ones that had fallen on her lawn met with a 200 mph windstorm. A relentless, two-hour onslaught.

My patience exhausted, I left the house. As I drove off, I glanced at our littered yard then noticed the spotless little grasslands on the rest of the block. Black plastic bags hid the dead. Once, I would have been shamed by our violation of social norms. No more. I appreciate the crisp rustle and tumble until Todd mows it into confetti compost.

fall scatter

We’re the third owners of an International Style house built in 1950. The architect—who claimed no aesthetic inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian periodchose a site in a new neighborhood that had mature trees. Attendant to mid-century modern practicality, he intentionally positioned the house’s longest facade to face south. He understood the value of deciduous trees. Shade in the summer, sun in the winter. He left several large swamp chestnuts standing and allowed a few young ones the chance to grow. A patch of urban forest thrived.

In 1960, he leveled most of the back yard and used part of the space for a regulation tennis court. Not long after his death, we asked his family why the court had been installed. One of his daughters laughed. “He hated to rake,” she said.

I joined in, remembering my grandfather. He hated to rake, too, and had no trees on his property, a small lot in an established neighborhood otherwise full of trees. I did not inherit his disdain.

maple

When we bought the house, the tennis court had succumbed to the earth’s slow shift. Cracks and rifts buckled the concrete. Sink holes threatened to swallow legs up to the knee.

These hazards were hidden under two autumns’ worth of fallen leaves. The second ownerfollowing the architectrented the house to various tenants for years. The last ones left the property a wreck. We, the third owners, had considerable clean up to do.

Two scrappy teenagers we hired stuffed dozens of plastic bags full of leaves. In the damp patches that remained, rich soil coated the hard gray surface, alive with microbes and worms. I scooped this up when I could and sprinkled it under the trees, who made the mess in the first place. I stood in the sink holes where the roots of long-dead trees had disappeared from their graves. I imagined the woodland that might have been.

After we had the tennis court removed, the clay valley received fifteen yards of river silt. Fertile enough to sustain grass, the silt was seeded with centipede. For two years, it crept and endured with water and hope. Our mulching mower chopped the green blades and dry leaves. The decay would yield topsoil.

The return had begun.

oak red

Bill, a native plant expert, smiled with affection as he peered up at my favorite swamp chestnut. Its thick canopy cast deep shade in the afternoon. Here and there was a fallen leaf the size and shape of a cow’s ear. The ground under some of its roots was barren except for a blanket of leaves. We’d removed the iron plants that choked together near its trunk some time before.

“This is what it wants,” Bill said as he pointed at the ground.

“What? Leaves?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s it’s food,” he said. “Spread them as far as you can.”

I kept my mouth shut. What a dolt, I thought to myself. My well-conditioned concept of a proper yard shattered with a sudden, but obvious, revelation. Grass was not normal under trees. Leaves, moss, ferns, and shrubs were. What forest had St. Augustine, centipede, or any other variety of turf growing across its floor?

“I want to create a woodland in the back here,” I said. The tennis court had become a wide boring rectangle of green.

Bill smoothed his beard. “Start with leaves. As many bags as you can get. Pile them up and let them decay to build the soil. Do this for a few years. You’ll have to pull a few weeds and any trees that sprout. Otherwise, it’s low maintenance.”

That fall, Todd and I spent Sunday mornings collecting what our neighbors diligently bagged and left at the curbs as trash. We received askance glimpses as we filled the truck bed with our roadside loot. I noticed the grassy front lawns. Ours looked—and would continue to look—no different. A polite concession to real estate, and community, values. But part of the back yard would be released to some wildness.

I turned myself over to patience, tentative as a new leaf.

hornbeam

These few years later, fourteen trees root into ground that was once covered with concrete. Under their young canopies, I can scratch into sweet soil and find the creatures responsible for the black gold. The red bud will come into flame soon. The fig tree might produce enough for the mockingbirds and us. The maple, hornbeams, and winged elm promise respite from the August heat. The slow-growing swamp chestnuts struggle to reach deeper into the clay.

Next fall, we won’t have to raid our neighbors’ curbs for leaves. I expect the trees will have enough to feed themselves.

What becomes of them will turn into memory. The young trees join the cycles of my human years, my growing appreciation for change and the assurance of return.

oak orange

The presumptuous and their eager green, frostbitten

Wise pecan, trustworthy officiate of spring, unfurled

Merciful shadows, blessed shade, summer in and out

Doodle bugs under the magnolia perfumed with spiced decay

Small blistered hands cool in the pile, the reward for raking

A gust of visual birdsongthe notes flutter down, down, down

Pneuma and terra dance the fairy whirlwind

Empty grasp at the blue, the gray, to be filled again with new life

parsley haw

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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

34 Responses to “Leave It”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh, how your words are like medicine to me.
    Right now, I am stuck in a glass and concrete building six floors up on a drizzly, gray day and reading this, made my feet feel like they were crunching on leaves, made my nose twitch with the promise of spring, and made my heart feel happy with the joys of nature.
    You know, I don’t usually appreciate trees and gardens, Miss Ronlyn, but seeing nature through your eyes has opened my own eyes up to its beauty and bounty. You have such a seemingly gentle way with your words but every one of them is precise and perfect and full of punch. You are a wonder.
    Thanks for making my gray, drizzly day suddenly feel like spring.
    xxx

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      You’re welcome, Miss Zara. I’ve pondered why I even write these pieces, and then I realized it’s an act of gentleness for myself as well as readers. We all need an oasis now and then. Especially on gray rainy days. Thank you for the kind acknowledgment.

      Consider that in the circle of life, trees and squirrels must have each other. The nutty little creatures will turn you into a nature lover if you’re not careful.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Why is it no surprise that you, of all people, Ronlyn, should be the one who gently coaxes nature back from a tennis court?

    This made me smile, to think of it.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Oh Ronlyn,

    There’s an empty lot next door with a crumbling tennis court.
    If it were my land, that’s what I’d do.
    You must get some funny looks by the people who have bagged up your leaves for you!
    They all think you’re nuts, you know.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      The horror… Maybe some nice weeds will at least green up the cracks and crevices.

      There’s no doubt the neighbors think we’re nuts. Who could possible want MORE leaves than they already have?! And considering how sad the yard looked for the first couple of years as the rot set in, they’d really question our sanity–and taste.

      • Irene Zion says:

        I’ve been thinking…maybe your neighbors are doing this as a favor to you and are 100% behind your beautifying an old tennis court into a beautiful forest.
        It’s possible.

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Oh, that’s a very nice thought. After the hurricanes of the past decade, we need all the reforestation we can get.

        • Lenore Zion says:

          this totally made me think of the tennis court that’s all grown over next to my parents’ house, too! weird.

  4. Absolutely gorgeous, Ronlyn! And more importantly you’ve just validated my non-raking.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Oh, I validate!!! Todd mulcher-mowed the front yard recently to tidy things up. (We’re not THAT uncouth.) The back, however, hasn’t been touched. We’ll rake the corners and chop it all to bits in a few weeks.

  5. Beautiful, evocative piece. I wish more people would let their yards go, and that finely manicured, mowed-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life lawns would be turned back over to the wild more often. Like you say, “Grass was not normal under trees. Leaves, moss, ferns, and shrubs were.”

    I live in a downtown apartment, but if I ever get a yard I hope to keep it overgrown and wooly, if the neighbors, not to mention spouse, will let me.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I can’t remember where I read this, but the American penchant for lawns ties into a matter of luxury, so to speak. We have land we don’t HAVE TO use for crops or pasture.

      If I could get away with it (I dare not risk offending the real estate gods), I’d let the whole yard decide what it wants to do. Based on observation, it would really like to be covered in trees. Swamp chestnuts, several oak varieties, maples, and hornbeams sprout like mad around here.

      Oh, I hope you’re near a nice park and can enjoy a little green now and then!

  6. I have a neighbor who mows his yard OBSESSIVELY from the first shoots of spring grass through to the fall when he can churn the leaves with his mower. This same neighbor has a blacktopped rectangle in the back corner of his yard that has a basketball hoop. After ANY rain he is outside sweeping the water from the court as if teams from the NBA are arriving for a pick-up game. His gardens are manicured while mine look like the bramble from The Secret Garden. I like chaos in the garden. I hate order and color coordination and I purchase plants because I like them, not because they match. All my neighbor’s outside tasks are completed in a very self-satisfied way and when we bump into him or his wife in the driveway it makes for awkward conversation. In my neighborhood, it seems if you can’t discuss the state of your lawn, you are not REAL homeowners.

    In the fall, on occasion, my husband and I have looked over to his heavily treed yard and seen not a single leaf on the grass. This amazes us as we pour a third cup of coffee and look out at our own leaf strewn yard. We like the leaves. It hides our balding lawn and the piles of dog poop we may have missed in our weekly sweep of the yard…..

    Lovely piece as always, Ronlyn.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Robin, kindred spirit, who has embraced a degree of chaos…..alas, your neighbor MUST reign it in. It would not do to have things sprouting and weed-ridden. Several of my neighbors fall on his spectrum of tidiness.

      On some level, though, I have to admire the tenacity and attention to detail of someone who can get a lawn that immaculate. He’d get along well with my elderly neighbor’s yard man.

      Careful of the hidden poop!

  7. kristen says:

    Beautiful, Ronlyn. I feel that if people wish to manicure/curb growth, they should stop at their own bodies! Leave the earth to grow/perish/replenish as it deems fit.

    Lovely verse there at the end…

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Hmm, you’re hitting a theme I’m dealing with in another long work. Human nature has some growth to endure to fully accept our place and responsibility in the balance of things.

      Funny how those last lines did not want to become fulll sentences. Thanks for the kudos!

  8. Robyn Johnson says:

    I enjoyed your essay, and love how you integrated the evocative photos. I was especially drawn to the alder branch. And I liked how you ended the text with the haiku-like phrases.

    It seems so obvious, doesn’t it–that trees drop their leaves and become enriched by them as they decay. People who obsessively rake leaves and “throw them away” are not sensitive to the trees’ needs. Trees are purposeful, organic beings–not yard decorations :)

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Thanks for reading, Robyn. (All the photos were taken this fall in my yard. Late color!)

      I’ve become far more attendant to the needs of the trees around our home. They all get a steady diet of chopped leaves. And I agree, they are beings. I learned that when I was a little kid with a certain pecan tree and a live oak.

  9. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    This is charming, Ronlyn. The passage of time feels so natural. It gives character to the place.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      The more I’ve dabbled in gardening and whatever stewardship my yard required, the more I’ve come to appreciate time’s rhythm.

  10. Greg Olear says:

    Gorgeous, Ronlyn. There’s something moving about the idea of the tennis court breaking down under layers of decayed leaves. Also: International style houses are way cool!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      You know, I didn’t even think of the pressure and moisture of the leaves contributing to how the concrete broke up. I kept thinking of the clay soil underneath. The tennis court didn’t have a chance!

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    I concur on the verse at the end. It feels like an incantation. But the whole piece is written so crisply, with every word so artfully, thoughtfully placed.

    I thought a lot of autumn while reading. Contrary to cliche, L.A. does have seasons, but they’re subtle, and I do miss the more radical shifts of the east coast. I especially miss autumn, with dead leaves everywhere. But, of course, when I was growing up, I hated to rake dead leaves. That job always seemed to fall to me.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      My inner Druid revels in the idea that those last phrases are an incantation. I didn’t intend it as so, but there it is.

      Where I live, spring blurs into summer and an actual autumn with a slow turn of the leaves is rare. I’ve been to Colorado and Virginia in the fall. The beauty was mindblowing.

      I had to rake, too, but I didn’t mind. Our yard was rather small, though.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Well, I’m from Virginia, and often, in the fall, trips would be made to Skyline Drive to see the foliage. You just don’t get those dazzling bursts of brilliant orange in Southern California. Yet of course, as a child, I took all that for granted.

        I like that you identify yourself as a Druid, at least of the inner sort. I consider myself an urban pagan. I’m fairly certain that qualifies as an oxymoron.

        • Stacy Jones says:

          You brought me back to a memory when I lived in St.Louis as a child. The deep lots were full of space and I loved it. I was sad to hear that years after we moved the woods and overgrowth had taken over and I hoped that someone could restore it to what it once was.

          After some thought I realized that although I like order and everything being just so, nature puts it’s own balance and order in place and everything is how it should be. Thank you for letting me see this as a rebirth*

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Duke…Urban pagan. That’s awesome. T. and I were outside of Roanoke that one year, and I had to force myself not to tell him to stop the car so I could frolic or have a moment or something.

          Stacy, I guess it’s about balance. We need the open spaces, too. I have plenty of practical, grown-up reasons why I don’t cover the yard with trees, but another is that I expect children might live in this house again. For the next family who lives here, it would be nice for their kids to have BOTH…a little wild area to hide and a little green space to run. Thanks for reading!

  12. Jessica Blau says:

    You can make anything interesting with your wonderful prose! I love the birth/death/rebirth-as-soil of the tennis court. And pictures are great, too.

  13. Diane St John says:

    Ronlyn,
    This piece was sent to me by my brother in law, Mr Greg Olear as he knows of my love of leaves. I too collect them from others to enrich the soil in my own yard and smother areas of lawn for future gardens.
    “No One Ever Fertilized an Old Growth Forest” is the title of chapter 24 in the book “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.” Leaves are the main source of food in the soil food web. You are doing the very thing that nature intended-may you have a beautiful, healthy yard!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Greetings, fellow leaf lover! This morning, we picked up a couple of bags we couldn’t resist, and this afternoon, I turned a new patch of soil for a vegetable garden full on rotten with horse manure and leaf compost.

      What a great book title. I’ll have to find it to see what else I can learn.

      Happy, healthy yard to you, too! (How kind of Greg to forward this essay, by the way.)

  14. [...] loves insects and leaves…and also football and Rush (we imagine “The Trees” must be a favorite of their [...]

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