Monday, October 22, 2012

`They Teach Us How to Die'

“I cannot easily dismiss the subject of the fallen leaves.” 

In five minutes I had raked enough leaves, acorns and pine needles to fill a plastic trash can, empty it into the bin and refill the can. The sheer biomass produced by four trees in one front yard in a week is astonishing.  

“Consider what a vast crop is thus annually shed upon the earth. This, more than any mere grain or seed, is the great harvest of the year.” 

As kids we had a deep front yard with two maples growing near the street, and our neighbor had five silver maples and a sugar maple standing in a line parallel to our yard. By this time of year our lawn was thickly carpeted with fallen leaves, at first mostly yellow, then turning brown. We make raking them a reluctant, day-long job, rewarded only by the acrid sweetness of leaves burning in the driveway, a smell as redolent of autumn as marigolds and apples. 

“This annual decay and death, this dying by inches, before the whole tree at last lies down and turns to soil. As trees shed their leaves, so deer their horns, and men their hair or nails. The year’s great crop. I am more interested in it than in the English grass alone or in the corn. It prepares the virgin mould for future cornfields on which the earth fattens. They teach us how to die.” 

One year my brother buried me under a heap of fallen leaves three or four feet deep. It was a dry fall and the leaves rustled even as I tried to remain still. The simple act of breathing, the expansion and contraction of my chest, produced a sound like radio static or wind through branches, as though my being had somehow revived the fallen leaves.

The quoted passages are from Thoreau’s journal entry for Oct. 22, 1853.

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