When leaves build, use a paddle

ON THE BAY

Advice: A longtime expert offers his way to deal with a lawn buried in leaves: Head for the water.

November 16, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

YOU KNOW when it's fall. The whine of the leaf blower is upon the land; the howl of the shredder-vac and the scratching of leaf rakes infiltrate every residential byway.

As owner of a shady, suburban half-acre, I have become expert in coping with the annual molting of the trees. As a public service, I kept this log this autumn--yardwork techniques honed over 12 years in residence, shared here for the first time.

Mid-October. Dogwoods and maples beginning to shed. Oaks won't be far behind. No time to lose. Open the tool shed and get out the kayak paddles.

In a few hours we're paddling south along the Atlantic Coast, bound from Chincoteague to Cape Charles, some 60 miles away. For the next four days, migrating dolphins surround us at sea, often no more than a boat's length away.

Along the dunes, monarch butterflies are streaming south, too, pausing to fuel on the nectar of seaside goldenrod. Overhead, hawks and eagles, falcons and ospreys follow the coastline down.

Sunsets and sunrises, and the setting of the crescent moon each night are just spectacular -- nary a tree nor a leaf in sight to block the view.

Late October. Leaves are piling thickly, nearly obscuring the periwinkle and pachysandra ground covers in my front yard.

I could do something about it, but a nice couple two hours down river from where I live have invited me to a Halloween bonfire. I bungee-cord a pumpkin onto the kayak's bow, and catch the ebb tide to the party.

The peri and pachy will forgive me. The leaves seem to act like fertilizer, stimulating the peri and pachy to sprout higher and spread wider each spring.

Early November. Just amazing how many leaves are down now, given how many still remain on the big oaks. Viburnums and witch hazels are beginning to turn gorgeous shades of maroon and gold. I've planted them thickly along the yard's edge to minimize "leaf leakage" into the street.

No kayaking this weekend. I'm taking the canoe instead, heading for the Paw Paw Bends, where the Potomac River makes a series of giant, miles-long loops beneath the forested slopes of Green Ridge State Forest.

It's surely the wiggliest, squiggliest border between any two states. From the put-in at Paw Paw, W.Va., to the takeout at Little Orleans, Md., it's no more than seven or eight miles, straight line. But by river it's nearly three times that.

Under perfect blue skies and spectacular, rocky precipices, we paddle and fish and drift with the current for two days, camping by the side of the C&O Canal, seeing almost no one on the river or the towpath. Perhaps they are all home raking leaves.

Mid-November. Leaves are shin deep now, with more to come. I recall a young poet friend who told me he had spent a whole week "watching leaves, to see how they fall." I don't know many writers with the courage to invest themselves so deeply in such "unproductive" matters.

My neighbor on one side has gone to full battle stations, dragging a leaf vac the size of a small home behind his John Deere today. A neighbor a couple yards away prefers guerrilla tactics.

She stays on full alert year round, pouncing on every twig and acorn and leaf that descends, never allowing the dreaded trees to gain an inch on her greensward.

Even I must at last make some concession to the leaves, spending a few minutes cleaning them from the cockpit of my kayak, which I haven't taken off the car roof for weeks.

This weekend I'm paddling closer to home -- Plum Creek on the Nanticoke, a tidal, freshwater swamp populated by maples and ash, wild magnolias and winterberry holly that is just spectacular in the fall with its red berries reflecting in the smooth, dark water.

The wind is blowing 20 knots, gusting to 30, wreaking havoc on leaf piles across the county. On the creek it's delightfully snug. The wind swells and recedes overhead in the tall loblolly pines like the sound of surf.

Suddenly, a large doe appears on the creek bank. I could touch her with my 8-foot paddle. She seems frightened --but not of me. In fact, I get the distinct feeling she would climb aboard if there were room.

Then in the shadows I see a buck. It's mating season. The doe bolts, with the buck in pursuit. For minutes I can hear them tearing back and forth through the dry leaves. She emerges again, the next bend downstream, coming even closer -- then they are off again.

I have been paddling Plum Creek for half my life, and never saw that before -- never saw so many turtles, either, sunning themselves on a south-facing mud bank. There were nine of them.

Looking back, I think there was a time I felt guilty about breaking ranks with the great American war on fallen leaves. The first couple years after I moved here were the hardest. It seemed almost a radical act. Snakes, rats, termites, mold allergies -- surely something bad would come of it; but nothing did.

Slowly but surely, the lawn has turned to forest floor, until this year I did not even start the mower. There was always plenty of grass for my kids to play on in the little community park half a block down the street.

Before you know it, it will be spring -- time to fertilize, mulch, weed, water and slather chemicals on lawns that now rule an area of America roughly equal to Pennsylvania, some 50,000 square miles.

I look forward to it almost as much as autumn's falling leaves.

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