From a glimpse at my leaf-buried yard, you might think I don't rake.
Wrong! Each October, during our town's "yard-waste" pickup week, my whole neighborhood gets out to scrape piles of leaves into the street. Loving the woodsy, camping-trip smells, and delighted to see my neighbors outdoors, I always join in this ritual of raking leaves over the curb.
It is true that I rake them in reverse, from the street back into my yard-but only because I figure they'll do little good out there on the asphalt.
After sundown, I continue the harvest, making my annual rounds like a lone trick-or-treater, hauling huge sacks off the curb and shoving them boisterously into my little car to tote back home. "How divine!" I think, exuberantly squashed between bags, wet leafmeal mashed on my cheek and trying to shift gears. The car innards, steeped in dark, tannic odors, give me the giddy sense of driving around in a giant tea bag-or a portable forest.
This, of course, is the point.
It takes 500 to 1000 years to create an inch of topsoil-a resource the United States is losing far faster than we replace it. We may "feed" soil with inorganic fertilizers, but these chemicals can't provide the loft or nutrients of organic matter. Worse, they run off into our gutters and creeks, rivers and bays.
I didn't know any of this 15 falls ago, when I became a first-time yard-owner. Back then, the lot-and-a-half around my house was a shadeless lawn that took four hours to mow each week-and produced nothing useful to people, wildlife or water.
Providing the one break in this monotony of grass, an eroding creek bisected the yard. The former owner had attempted to strengthen the banks by lining them with chunks of old busted-up sidewalk. It resembled the bombed-out ruins of a Roman aqueduct.
"My dad says this creek is nothing but trouble," a teenage neighbor told me upstream, where I asked him not to dump his lawnmower clippings into the stream. "Every time it rains, you'll have water in your yard," he warned.
He was right. I had no roots here to sop up rain or hold the creek banks. Moreover, I'd heard creeks needed shade to stay cool enough for native aquatic life. The only life I saw in the water was my puzzled face, floating in blank-blue sky.
So I ordered bundles of hardwood seedlings from the state Department of Forestry and began to dig. I knew nothing about "dirt," but soon realized-hacking hole after hole into the bricklike clay-mine surely could not help a tree grow.
"Trees need nutrients from their own leaf-litter," advised the Arbor Day Foundation that year. It was urging homeowners not to rake away their trees' valuable nutrition-an American ritual that was weakening our nation's suburban forest.
But how did you retain those leaves before your trees had any to drop?
"Could I've your leaves?" I asked a neighbor across the creek. He was about to bundle a barnload of them into a hundred Hefty sacks. Baffled, but happy to abbreviate his labors, he helped rake them across the street to dump in my yard.
Traveling around town, I added to the pile. "May I've your leaves?" "Yall done with those leaves?"
"They'll kill your grass," warned one lady with an immaculate lawn.
"Terrific," I agreed, and roared away with a bulging carload.
The amused town maintenance crew began dumping whole truckloads into my gone-lawn, until a mountain high as the roof had formed. By the next summer, the mountain had sunk to a waist-high pile of humus I began to spread. I rooted willow wands in jars, brought in acorns and maple seeds from mountain hikes, and transplanted little sycamores from a road construction project.
Buckets of creekwater got dumped on the seedlings through two years of drought, until they tapped an underground aquifer and shot up quickly. Some neighbors downstream let me plant willows along their own eroding banks, and local officials agreed to study a greenway project along the creek, all the way through town.
Meanwhile, my old, barren lawn turned over a new leaf. It's now a joyful woodland full of shade, butterflies, turtles, songbirds, a raucous kingfisher-and even fish it swoops for in the creek. I mow less than five hours per summer.
It's true I don't have that high-maintenance, immaculate carpet featured in lawn-industry ads. But 500 years from now, nobody alive will give a durn. More than surface appearances, they'll likely want underlying water quality, shade, creeks full of fish, and good soil to feed their own roots.