My house sits on about an eighth of an acre that is home to a grove of gigantic, old trees who make a canopy of grace and wisdom over my house. When I walk under their branches on my way to my door, I am transported from the worries of work and the outside world and brought under their simultaneously otherworldly and Earthly protection. In the fall, as they drop off to sleep, they blanket the land with a good five or six inches of yellow, orange, brown and green leaves.
Every year, my family and I rake all these leaves into mounds worthy of an ancient burial or temple site at the back of the garden. Because my land is a series of levels, each sloping gently down to the next, erosion washes away all but the lowest soil. So, in the spring, I cart the soil created by the composting mounds back up to fill in what the rain carried off downstream.
The raking takes about ten hours a year of time that I have learned to turn into a moving meditation. I try to rake when everyone else is gone so that I can listen to the wind in the leaves that remain, witness the small birds flying between the bushes gathering the last few berries, smell the scent of the herbs as my rake releases their oil into the air one final time. This year I also made a point of really listening to the leaves, and this is what they told me…
Nature has created the world to be a place of beauty and abundance, but is not to be taken for granted. I have no idea how many individual leaves I rake, but it must be in the hundreds of thousands. Each of those is its own palette of color, texture and shape, is a masterpiece in itself. Yet, each of those leaves is only at the height of its color for a short time. If we are too preoccupied to lower our eyes to the ground at the right time, we will miss this unique show. How much Nature must love to create to make all these leaves, knowing that most will never really be seen!
The wheel of birth, death, and rebirth is more than a way of viewing life; it is how life really works. In the space of only twelve months, a tree gathers nutrients from the soil to make a bud, which grows into a leaf, which has a few months in the sun before it falls and decomposes on the ground (or in my compost mound), becoming nutrients once again. Where else can you watch the endless cycle of life and death progress practically day by day?
The falling leaves are a guidebook to our winter tasks. In the winter, it is time to go within ourselves to contemplate, to make ready for the coming spring, to nurture those seeds that will bear fruit once the sun rises full and warm again. The leaves direct our attention downward, let themselves be absorbed into the soil, go to that inner place of the Earth, just as we must descend into our own below ground consciousness. But then along comes a dog, the force of wildness, and runs in the leaves, the carefully raked and piled leaves, and makes them fly, strewing them on the ground once again. And so must our own wildness also run through ourselves as we sit in solitude in our winter caves, enlivening our thoughts and bringing vitality and creativity to what we will eventually carry to the surface.
Most years I have a couple of weeks between when I finish raking and the first snowflakes. In that time I transform into my “winter self,” making ready to go within as the cold weather arrives. This year, the cold has come early and even now I bundle up and never quite get warm. Because we have had such a wet spring and summer, we have even more leaves than usual, as if they are hurrying me into winter by the extra effort, time, and contemplation their raking brings forth from me.