I wonder every fall if my ancestors really understood what they were doing when they left Iceland. Did they know how many trees there were in Canada? Did they know that every tree had leaves and every leaf would fall and, when their descendants had houses and yards, they’d spend hours, days, sometimes weeks, raking up leaves and taking them to the recycling yard.? Dwarf birch in Iceland don’t get to spread their leaves very far. Did they realize that the outcome all their sacrifices would be their descendants having conversations with municipal clerks about whether a tree was dead or not?
“The tree is definitely dead,” I said, exasperated. “The gall wasps got it.”
“We’ll have to send out a tree inspector,” the municipal clerk replied. “Garry Oaks are protected trees.”
“The bark’s coming off in strips. Some of the branches are bare. There hasn’t been a leaf on it in two years.”
“We need,” she explained patiently, “a death certificate.”
I expected an ambulance, maybe even a hearse. At least someone in a white coat who would hold a stethescope to the trunk and write a prescription or two before giving up. Instead, there was this guy with a clip board who stood on the road, scribbled onto his clip board and handed me a form with, “Looks dead.” written on the bottom.
The reason there are still big Garry Oaks around is because they’ve got so many twists and knots in them that they can’t be used for lumber. I keep thinking it’s like all the guys with flat feet not ending up in graveyards in Europe during the last war. Not being able to march saved their lives.
Garry Oaks have more leaves than any tree in the world. The leaves are tough. They’re not like maple leaves or ash leaves that quickly rot away. Oak leaves turn bronze colored and become just about as hard. In spite of a winter of steady rain, come spring, they’re still crisp as fresh corn flakes.
My neighbour is a genius at mechanical things. His solution for oak leaves is to upend his Lawn Boy rotary lawn mower, build a box around it, then dump his leaves into the box. Sort of like a humungous coffee grinder. Chops the leaves into little bits. I’m terrified of the garburator, never mind an upended lawnmower. I keep worrying that I’ll slip and my hand will somehow fall into the dark hole that lies beyond the strips of rubber. The idea of an upended rotary mower gives me nightmares. My solution is to pile the leaves at the corner stop sign and let the passing cars grind them down to a fine powder. Then I scoop them up with a flat shovel, load oak leaf pulp onto the wheelbarrow, then heap up more oak leaves for the passing traffic to reduce to dust .
“I’m going out to blow the leaves,” my nephew says. Blowing is the rage among gardeners; raking is passé.
I used to enjoy raking leaves. Mostly what I enjoyed was the easy motion and the silence. There was just the scratch, scratch of the rake and rustle of the leaves. It was a time for meditation, for deep reflection on whatever needed reflecting upon. My nephew puts on ear protectors, a face shield, slips the Echo motor onto his back, and looking like an extra from Road Warrior blows leaves down the lane and across the lawn onto a blue tarp that he hauls to the curb to await the arrival of the gully sucker. The gully sucker is a monstrous white truck that actually is a giant vacuum cleaner. One man drives it. Four men in florescent vests follow behind. One holds a corrugated tube big enough to suck up a full grown adult, never mind children and small dogs. Two workers follow along with rakes and pull forward any leaves that the vacuum has missed. The fourth one holds up a sign warning oncoming cars to slow down.
There are worse leaves than oak leaves. Arbutus leaves survive for years. They are nature’s answer to plastic. The story is arbutus don’t shed their leaves, they shed their bark. And, its true as far as it goes. In December and January, when I look out my front window, the arbutus tree is waxy green, with large bunches of bright red berries. The trunks is deep red or purple and is starting to tear and fall away in strips. After a good freeze, the berries ferment and we have a day or two of drunk flocks of birds. Not a little tipsy. Absolutely plastered. They fall off the branches onto the ground, others fly into windows and walls. They’re as noisy as any group of students in the SUB on a Saturday around midnight. The only thing missing is a rock band.
Arbutus leaves do fall off. They just don’t fall off all at once, or over a few weeks, like the oak leaves. They fall off all year. They’re sharp and brittle and even though they turn yellow or black, they are virtually indestructible. I used to gather them up and burn them but then the condo-environmentalists decided that burning was bad. So now they go into the garbage cans for the municipality to burn.
There are leaves that I covet. Those are from the maples that line the road into Uplands. They’re big and soft. They rot quickly and make a rich, dark humus. Each year I think I’ll beat the gully sucker to the boulevards of the rich, load up my pickup with these leaves and pile them into my compost box. I never do it. It’s one thing to collect seaweed for the compost box. It’s another thing to risk being confronted by the local police as a suspicious character collecting leaves from between the Mercedes. What would people make of the headline, “Retired professor arrested for stealing rich people’s leaves”?