I do not rake leaves.
I have leaves. Lots of leaves. An entire backyard full of leaves. I have one of those wide rakes with splayed tines. But I do not rake.
Because I am a firstborn, a former Girl Scout, and still a licensed member of the Georgia Bar, however, I feel compelled to defend my actions. I, in deliberately choosing to leave the leaves untouched, am not being lazy, an act of moral turpitude for which I could easily be disinherited. Nor does my choice arise from the desire to see my leaves slowly dissolve and re-nourish the soil, though being a good steward of the earth is something to which I aspire.
I do not rake leaves because I like the sound of them shooshing, shuffling, crackling. I like to feel them gathering around my ankles like waves at the beach or suds in the bathtub, disappearing my feet and creating a mystery as to how I can possibly be standing. To move through mounded piles of sycamore leaves broader than my out-stretched hands or heaps of oak leaves curling tightly in on themselves like cigars creates a sound that startles me into consciousness on days when too many layers of clothes and too much time huddled inside have left me lethargic and disinterested.
It would be easy to say that rushing through dead leaves makes me feel like a child again, but that would not be true. It makes me feel very much like an adult who can not rake her leaves if she doesn’t want to.
A few days ago, I went outside to refill the bird feeders and noticed that the previous night’s stiff wind had amputated from the trees a number of branches – most of them thin and delicate, bending back and forth at angles so slight that they could pass for straight – , tossing them about the yard in a meteorological game of pick-up sticks.
I filled the feeders and, since I was already cold, set about picking up the branches, tossing them into a pile at the edge of the yard that always reminds me of my preparedness in the event that I should need to start a fire for some reason. Back and forth I went, loading my arms, emptying my arms, listening to and being comforted by the crunch beneath my feet.
Suddenly I stumbled, caught myself, and knew without looking down what had interrupted my stride. A sycamore root, one over which I have probably stepped a thousand times, hidden beneath the leaves.
If there's anything I like better than dead leaves, it is the thick, winding, surface-breaking roots of a sycamore tree. They defy just about everything I ever learned about roots in third grade science. They do not stretch deep into the earth, searching for water and nutrients. They run shallow and stretch out around the trunk like uneven spokes on a wheel. They scar easily from things like riding lawn mowers because of their nearness to the surface and, in the way of scars, create a strange kind of beauty.
The stumble stopped me. I stood under the wide naked branches, clutching the twigs to my chest, feeling the wind on my cheeks, and – in this week of Epiphany – had one: It is the sycamore roots over which we have stepped a thousand times that will most likely trip us up.
That is, it is the long-held and rarely re-considered opinions that so often leave us faithless, the once-made and never-questioned allegiances that so often lead to betrayal, the legitimate but dangerous desires for permanence and stability that so often result in stagnation.
I took a breath. Deep and chill. I dropped my load and turned to go, the sound of crunching leaves both witness and judge.