Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Do Unto Others

Perhaps the annual ritual of raking leaves does not put one in mind of applying the Golden Rule, but I will try to persuade you otherwise. I spent the better part of the morning raking leaves. Not so unusual, you say, considering that it is autumn. True, but the leaves I was raking came mostly from my neighbors’ trees. Thus begins my annual agony of determining the best course of action—do I rake all the leaves that blow into my yard AND try to rake from my neighbors’ yards the leaves that fall from my trees, or do I rake only the leaves from my trees, wherever they may be (within reasonable reach) or do I take the course my neighbors take and rake NO leaves?

Perhaps you can sense that this annual dilemma is a source of considerable annoyance to me. While we have many trees on our small slice of suburbia, more than half of them are mature evergreens. When we moved here more some 26 years ago, we were the first residents in our house which was in a newly built neighborhood. Either there were no trees here, or all trees had been banished during construction. Since I am a tree nut, I set about planting trees. I enlisted my not-so-willing but loving husband’s help, and he tilled a row all along the back end of our property. Since that was the north and northwest corner of our property, planting trees there made perfect sense as it cut the wind that whistled down off the gentle slope hitting the back of our house full force and freezing the bedrooms in winter. I selected 14 evergreens, a mixture of Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, Norway spruce, Austrian pine, white pine, and Japanese pine. They were all bare root stock, and I planted them about 6 feet apart—a distance that looked enormous with those little 18 inch trees struggling to grow. Well, grow they did and eventually we had to take down every other tree—fortunately what we took down were the Japanese pine which were not as attractive as they grew.

Sprinkled around our house are the hard wood trees—a pin oak, a green ash, a sunset maple, a Japanese maple that recently succumbed to some wilt, a white dogwood and a redbud. Many of these were also bare root stock. For reasons not entirely clear to me, except perhaps the genetic makeup of these trees, they tend to drop their leaves fairly early. The green ash tree thins out first, then the dogwood, with the pin oak stubbornly dropping a few leaves at a time. Finally the sunset maple drops its leaves. And I merrily rake as I go. BUT every year, after I have raked the leaves my trees drop, our yard fills up with large yellow maple leaves and spear-shaped leaves from an unidentified tree that do not come from my trees. And I begin to fume.

The topography of our yard mysteriously is tilted in such a way that all leaves blow into it. I have occasionally gently remarked to neighbors that it is curious that I have a yard full of leaves from trees I don’t have. One neighbor, several years ago, laughed and said—oh yes, we never rake our leaves, we just wait for them to blow out of our yard. AHA! I thought—I knew it. Some years, I have tried to shame neighbors into gathering their leaves by making huge conspicuous piles of leaves, just next to their yards, that they can’t possibly miss. Sometimes it works—suddenly a neighbor will appear, as I am out raking and picking up leaves, and pitch in helping ME move THEIR leaves to the curb for leaf-pickup.

In the literature course I am teaching this semester, last week we just read Robert Frost’s famous poem,
Mending Walls. Of course, I asked the students if they had read this poem before—most had. And I asked, what the most famous line is: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Then I ask, what is Frost trying to say with the poem—and of course the students repeat the famous line.

I confess that at this time of year, I long for good fences to help me have good neighbors. But, ironically, the true meaning of the poem rests in the other famous line—the opening line. Frost’s narrator, speaking very much in a Frostian voice, says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And so, in the poem you have the tension I experience every autumn. In our neighborhood, particularly on our street, we have back yards mostly unfettered by fences. I like that. It has been my (albeit limited) experience that neighborhoods with fences are unneighborly and those without fences are very neighborly.

So, I will struggle with leaves each autumn—I will rake leaves that blow into my yard that are not from my trees. I will grit my teeth, stifle my urge to write an indignant note to each neighbor saying—do you mind, pick up your own leaves! I will do to them what I wish them to do to me.

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