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Piles of Leaves and Life Lessons

When my son entered seventh grade this past September, he became heir to a legacy of sorts: the dreaded Leaf Project.

I think Alyosha was in second grade when I first got wind of what lay ahead for him and his cohorts five years down the line. And now that he has arrived, I realize why I needed those years to gird myself for the magnitude of the task.

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The Leaf Project, or rather, THE LEAF PROJECT, has been the hallmark of the seventh grade of our local middle school for some uncounted number of years. The teacher in charge, Mr. Gridley, has been teaching science since 1958, and I would not be surprised to learn that the leaf project, too, is as old as Sputnik.

The thing is, Mr. Gridley is a soft-spoken, grandfatherly, teddy bear of a man. How then is he able to inspire such frantic industry among 12- and 13-year-olds?

In short, the kids were given two months to bring this project to completion. Working in groups of five, their task was to collect and classify leaves from native Maine trees, noting where they were collected, soil type, and surrounding tree types. A big task for seventh-graders who have never really looked at nature in a quantitative fashion; but a bigger task for the parents like me who, inevitably, get sucked into the vortex, despite our best intentions to "stay out of it."

How can one stay out of it when leaves, needles, and branches have permeated every corner of my house?

The kitchen table is a complete loss. It overflows with maples, oaks, poplars, and the broad, toothed leaves of the magnificently named eastern hop-hornbeam. At breakfast I can do no more than clear a space with my forearm for my bagel.

The other day I had difficulty putting on one of my shoes: A sprig of fir was jammed into one of the toes. "So that's where it was!" exalted my son.

This morning, I opened a book of poetry, and out flew a basswood, two birches, and an ash, put there by eager seventh-graders for drying purposes.

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Poetry. Yes, there have been moments of sublime delight that only a poet could capture: The autumn walks through the Maine woods, the leaves crunching under our feet as I and the five diminutive, chatty leaf-gatherers set out under a somber sky in search of the elusive shagbark hickory. By the time we are done, each of the kids is swinging a bag of leaves, which, in Robert Frost's words, "are light as balloons." We return home, and I watch as they unload their bounty onto the already overburdened kitchen table. And, in my mind, I return to Frost's "Gathering Leaves":

I may load and unload

Again and again

Till I fill the whole shed,

And what have I then?

What I have is pure gift, as the wonder of it all begins to make its impression on me. I am reminded of the pleasures I associated with leaves in my own childhood. I grew up in a city, but my street was lined with maples and sycamores, which formed a thick canopy from one side to the other. In autumn (and I so prefer this word to "fall"), the leaves came down in torrents. We kids would splash through them as if they were ocean waves.

Day by day, leaves grew more crisp and aromatic, until, late in the season, our parents were finally compelled to gather the brown, crumbling remains of our play. These days it has become customary to bag leaves for curbside pickup; but when I was a boy they were loaded into steel garbage cans and burned.

Those were magical nights, with the air cool and sweet. Every house had a curbside leaf pyre, with ribbons of smoke rising, fathers tending the fires, and children helping to gather the harvest. We knew, for we had a ritual to prove it, that one season was being laid to rest in preparation for another that would turn our thoughts from leaves for another year.

As I watch the five student leaf-gatherers, I am often compelled to jump into the fray with them, to help them sort, name, paste, and organize. But I do little more than serve up hot chocolate and utter an occasional "That sounds right," or "Very good." For I have had my leaf time, and now it is their turn to engrave a season upon their minds and in their hearts by touching it, sharing it, and getting it under their fingernails and into their nostrils.

The leaf project is due tomorrow. "No exceptions," was Mr. Gridley's caveat. And so, on this eve of completion, after presiding over hikes, meetings, and the frantic search for a misplaced nannyberry leaf, I find myself vicariously exhausted by the industry of these children, and Frost once again speaks for me:

I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn-tired.

God knows all the color and form of leaves I have trodden on and mired.

Perhaps I have put forth too much strength and been too fierce from fear.

I have safely trodden underfoot the leaves of another year.

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