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In praise of autumn leaves revealed in the springtime

In his poem, "Gathering Leaves," Robert Frost wrote, "Spades take up leaves/ No better than spoons,/ And bags full of leaves/ Are light as balloons."

It appears that Frost was no slouch when it came to autumn raking. If he'd been as neglectful as I, he'd have written about the still-frozen hillocks of half- decomposed leaves that seem to rise up out of the earth as winter's snow recedes.

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I've always attacked raking with great gusto. For one, it is not that demanding a task (remember: whole bags of leaves are light as balloons). Second, raking gives one a real sense of getting something done. I enjoy exposing the still-green grass as I sweep the carpet of maple and ash away. But it is a truism for me that halfway through the effort I seem to lose steam. Either something else grabs my attention, or perhaps half raking the lawn seems enough for a day's work, and I simply forget about completing the task.

The problem is that the longer I wait to finish the job the more compact and sodden the leaves become, and I, in turn, develop an approach-avoidance attitude about the whole affair. I wind up comforting myself with a bit of wisdom I read in a book somewhere. The author questioned the necessity of raking leaves at all, writing, "We should leave them there. That's why they call them leaves."

Fast-forward to spring. As I look out my window I can observe the effects of the steady warming here in central Maine. Clear sky, bright sun, chickadees flitting about, and snow piles shrinking, revealing artifacts - tools, toys, a baseball glove - that I never got around to picking up before winter's onset. Among these remains are thick, frozen, blackened mats: October's leftover leaves. I take my rake from the shed and try to dig in. But it is no go. It's like trying to rake granite.

I look to the garden for easier prey. The leaves rest more lightly there, pillowed atop the gnarled and desiccated tomato vines, the sedum bed, and the terraced perennial garden that has long been a work in progress. I don't use a rake here, for fear of uprooting some of the more tender plants, like my ajuga, with its surface runners and fragile rhizomes. Instead, I get down on hands and knees and grab fistfuls of leaves, which I pack, pack, pack into a plastic trash bag.

What I find never fails to surprise me, even though it is a revelation I am privy to year after year. Under the leaves the ajuga is still purple, the sedum is sending up its first shoots, and the moss is green and fresh and already reproducing, as evidenced by the threadlike spore-stalks adorning its carpet like parade banners. The animal kingdom makes its presence known, too: sow bugs scurry about, a centipede seeks a new hiding place, and the pinkest earthworm seems nothing if not bewildered for having had its cover blown.

What's happened, of course, is that the leaves provided just enough protection from winter cold to act as an insulator, keeping the temperature a tad higher than what the more-exposed plants and animals had to endure. The result, under the leaves at least, is an early spring. Taking care not to upset the creatures any more than I already have, I lay my hand down on the newly exposed earth. Warm. And this, on a 40-degree F. day.

I continue to lift the leaves away, exposing the plants and animals below to the waxing warmth of a springtime sun. Looking ahead to the day, coming soon, when the garden will not only grow, but will get ahead of me with both its weeds and its cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, I have no regrets about my "leaving the leaves" where nature intended them to be. Sometimes experience is all we need to rationalize our inertia.

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Now I'll fetch my hammer and chisel and get those leaf piles off the lawn.