I take the afternoon off, a Friday of the middle of October, to burn up a half-day of paid time off and enjoy another in a string of fine, warm autumn days by adding the first blush of fall leaves to my pile.
The first tree to give up its leaves is always a swamp maple that rises from the corner of the yard beside the road and leans thickly over the neighbor’s front yard, its roots exposed across the patch of hard, compacted dirt they use to park their cars. The neighbors have already raked the leaves into a tidy pile along the bed of wood chip mulch that separates our yards, a ready-made batch for me to gather onto the old white bedsheet I use to drag the leaves over my pile.
The fluffy load of crimson and gold easily covers the flattened mound of seaweed and mashed up stems of salt marsh grass I’ve gathered from the beach over the past couple of weeks and spread across the fall harvest of spent stalks and vines from the garden and grass clippings from the lawn, newly revived by the cool sunny days of autumn and the crop of fresh compost I lavished upon it last month. I top the rotting mashup of green with a smattering of shredded white paper I brought home from the office and tuck the clippings around the thick sunflower stalk I planted in the middle of my pile. I add an armful of cuttings from the perennial garden, the spent stalks will help keep my growing pile airy until they are crushed into submission by rot and the press of leaves.
I gaze across the backyard. The lawn, a vibrant green, still grows lushly, and only a shady patch under the big sycamore that lords over the front corner of the yard is flecked with fallen leaves, though not enough to bother yet with raking.
Most of the trees in my backyard are still largely green, their roots comforted by the deep topsoil and thick beds of rich mulch, and peak fall color is just now making its way from the northerly parts of New England. Two scraggly maples on either side of the driveway, their root systems impinged by asphalt, are usually next to drop their leaves, most of which fall on the street. The passing traffic breezes the leaves into long windrows along the side of the road, and it takes just a few minutes to rake them up into small collections. Much of the leaves have been pulverized by cars, turning it into flattened arboreal road kill for my pile.
There are just enough leaves to gather to give my pile enough cover for its next deposit: The green plastic garbage can stuffed with the kitchen scraps, compost and sheaves of sycamore bark and paper I started filling in late August, as I began preparing to spread the season’s finished compost throughout the garden and lawn. After topping to the brim of the flip-up handles, the brewing compost within has now settled to about two thirds full, the shredded paper frosting on top now stained the color of tea.
It, along with a second metal can I borrowed from the neighbor last month, is a veritable IED of compost in the making. I drag the plastic can around the side log wall and set it in front of my pile. It’s too heavy to pick up and dump the compost outright, so I stick a pitchfork into the midst and spread steaming forkfuls across the newly deposited leaves. The pounds and pounds of kitchen scraps and last year’s compost sink through the freshly deposited leaves. After a hot month of percolating in a mostly sealed container, the mix is hardly identifiable, though I do spot a couple of corn cobs from a late-summer cookout.
The leaves gathered from along the street are waiting to be tumbled over this mix, and just after I empty the sheetful of crushed leaves, I’m visited by my neighbors, who come bearing a most appropriate gift.
It’s Craig from across the street, who married into a large Sicilian family, with his father-in-law, who makes wine each fall. This year he bought 250 pounds of red grapes, and today he brings over a chilled bottle of his first batch. I head inside to grab wine glasses. Craig has told me his father-in-law has been asking him why my lawn is still so green.
Craig is telling him how I spread the compost across the lawn as I set the glasses on a log beside my pile. The cork from the liter bottle comes out with a pop. I pour a tasting for each of us to salute the harvest of the autumn season. The sparkling ruby red wine is fresh and alive, and strong.
“It needs to breathe,” says Craig says.
“It will mature,” adds Sal, the winemaker in his thick Sicilian accent.
I taste, we clink glasses, and I look over to my pile and nod in happy agreement.