Crisp morning air, auburn leaves, sugary sweet apples – these are a few of the things we love best about fall in Minnesota. I relish the evenings when the wind blowing in through our bedroom window is cool enough to send me crawling under the blankets and though I resent the darkness for arriving earlier and earlier each night, I run almost gleefully for the matches to light torches in the backyard before settling into our old wooden swing to sip wine and watch bats flutter in the sky. Like most Minnesotans, autumn is my favorite time of year, and yet, the minute the leaves begin to change, I start to feel a sense of loss and sadness. It’s like listening to Simon and Garfunkel and feeling melancholy for no particular reason. Perhaps it’s the fleeting nature of the fall, so beautiful and yet it slips through our fingers like sand, impossible to hold on to for long.
Then, there are the rituals of fall that fill one with a great sense of satisfaction. Just this past weekend, I plunked a gourd down on the front stoop, planted scarecrows in the garden and dug the Halloween decorations out of the basement. Though I haven’t acknowledged it yet, golden leaves have begun to drop on my lawn and I know that it is only a matter of time before I’ll participate in the annual tradition of raking as well. Yes, the chore is mundane, but in a zen-like way it is also rather pleasant. Unlike mowing, it is a quiet activity and as such, you are able to appreciate the sights and sounds of your surroundings while you work or, better yet, recruit a friend to your efforts.
In many places, leaf raking has become a community building exercise. Churches and local nonprofits recruit volunteers to rake yards for the elderly and disabled. In recent years, the Freshwater Society has helped neighbors and community groups to organize leaf clean-ups for clean water as well. Homeowners and volunteers come together to rake leaves out of streets and storm drains, as well as yards, so that they don’t wash into local lakes and rivers and cause algae blooms the next year. Last year, for example, 26,334 Girl Scouts from 49 counties across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa collected 101,904 bags of leaves, which would have otherwise contributed 20,000 pounds of phosphorus to local waterways. In addition, the girls marked 6,872 storm drains with clean water messages and distributed 50,000 door hangers.
Unlike planting trees or building a raingarden, raking leaves out of the street is an activity that must be done over and over, year after year, to protect our lakes and streams. Though beautiful, those colorful falling leaves break down in our storm sewer systems, creating pulses of phosphorus that feed algae the next year. It’s natural and healthy for some leaves to decompose in our lakes and rivers, but storm sewers in our streets carry much more leaves and nutrients into the water than is needed. Rather than cursing this condition that we’ve created, however, we can breathe deep and appreciate the opportunity these leaves give us to participate in the traditions of fall.
Bundle up for a high school football game. Sip a pumpkin spice latte. Get lost in a nearby corn maze. Then, rake the leaves from your yard and the leaves from your street while you ponder the passage of time and hum a tune from Simon and Garfunkel.