Our neighbors have gone south for the winter, seeking climates where it does not rain six days out of seven. They leave by Halloween each year, before the rains have really set in, and return when spring is still early enough that wet cold days are the norm even as the Indian plum sends out graceful arcs of cream-colored flowers.
I've been thinking about communities lately, both ecological and human. We take it as a given that the natural world is made up of many interconnected pieces, so that no single organism stands by itself. For some reason, we have a much harder time accepting this view of our own communities, even though it is every bit as true. This matters, as how we manage the coming enormous upheaval on a planet in rapid climatic transition will depend on how we see each other, and our relationship to both the rest of humanity and to the larger biological community of which we are an indivisible part.
The leaves have fallen in the neighbors' garden, thick enough to smother the grass if they remain there until spring. I took the dogs and a rake and wheelbarrow and went to work, sweeping up the remnants of last summer's photosynthesis and depositing them in the garden plot. Leaves are extraordinary. They do all the work of taking sunlight, which in itself is simply energy, and transforming that energy into actual food- both for the plants, and for nearly all the rest of the non-plant life forms on the planet. It is a very cool trick. An even more amazing part of the trick is to shed the biomass when it becomes more of a liability than an asset, first salvaging the good stuff before letting the depleted leaf fall free. The rest of us get a blaze of colorful glory before the curtain falls and winter takes the stage.
We have an understanding with these neighbors. In the summer, they allow us to pasture our ewes and lambs on their five-acre pasture, and keep an eye on the water trough. They've helped us build fences, taught us how to deliver lambs that are too tangled to come out on their own, and loaned us innumerable tools. They've shared vegetables, gardening knowledge, tips on livestock care, small gifts, and great stories. They are the sort of neighbors most people only know of through a culture of yesterday.
In return, we help as we can, share lamb and blueberries and fresh bread, and keep an eye on their place when they go away for the winter. I rake leaves and I can never quite believe that the summer is really gone, our neighbors are gone, and now there is the winter to be gotten through before we look down the hill and see their lights shining, breaking the darkness with a friendly light that says the neighborhood is as it should be. The leaves have got to be gathered up first, and given a chance to move through the next stage of the cycle.
Shed leaves are a major component of soil humus, providing food and shelter for all manner of soil organisms. I leave a fair number of scattered leaves as I rake, so they will provide fodder for the earthworms and enrich the soil that in turn supports the tree. They'll be long gone by spring, and they are scattered enough so they will not impact the grass. I use a bamboo rake and a wheelbarrow, because they get the job done while leaving me with the peaceful late fall afternoon, broken by the happy huffing of my dog in hot pursuit of his tennis ball, which I throw between sweeps of the rake, the calls of small flocks of juncos and chickadees, and once the sound of a tree falling in the woods by the creek. It was wet and windy the day before, and the cycle of renewal incorporates more than just leaves.
I finish before dark, but not before the cold of evening flows in along the creekbed next to the garden, and the sheep start looking expectantly for some alfalfa pellets in their feeder. Properly done, the afternoon's work will nourish both the human community and the wild one, with no loss to either. Surely we can find a way forward that truly honors that which we value most.