Sisyphus and the deciduous

November 14, 2006

Early American settlers hated trees, and this time of year it's not hard to see their point, if you have a rake in your hand. A mature tree in the Mid-Atlantic can have 200,000 leaves on it, and picking them up once they fall would be a chore even if you only had one old oak in your backyard and a steady wind blowing toward your neighbor's. The thing of it is, a lot of people around here have more than one oak or maple or beech or whatever. And they also have another neighbor, upwind.

Leaves on the forest floor are good. Leaves in streams and ponds are good. Leaves in gutters and in storm drains are not, and neither are wet, slippery leaves on the sidewalk and, face it, no one in your neighborhood wants to see your front yard awash in them.

This past Saturday presented the perfect deciduous dilemma. It was warm and still. The ground was covered with, say, 130,000 leaves from each of the nearby trees. The forecast was for rain and wind that night (which wasn't wrong and which was sure to bring a lot more to the ground). Do you rake up what you have, knowing you'll have to go back for more, or do you wait until the remaining 70,000 per tree all come down?

Every homeowner, undoubtedly, handled this differently. There's no one right answer. Trying to decide - well, at least that helped to make the time available for raking that much shorter. Is it twice as hard to rake 200,000 or 400,000 or 600,000 leaves in two tries as it is in one? Is it easier? Is it maybe a little harder but not a lot harder? What about the pain involved in having to look at the ugly parts of your lawn on successive weekends?

We saw one man attack his stubborn dogwood Saturday with a leafblower. It didn't work, and the leaves stayed on until he finally gave up, at which point a gentle breeze swept by and blew them all off.

Baltimore's Department of Public Works picks up bagged leaves on the second trash day of each week, and also on Sundays in especially leafy precincts. It takes in about 6,000 tons a year, and it all gets mulched and sent over to Recreation and Parks and to community gardens and put to good use.

Some people say they can remember when you could burn your leaves, or at least smolder them; it took forever and smelled great and hurt your lungs, which maybe was a sign. The best thing about it was you put them into piles but didn't have to pick them up. Now you do. And if you did it on Saturday, now you've got to do it again.

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