the trouble with autumn leaves...
I’m not one to take issue with the laws of physics – really, ask anyone who knows me – but right here, right now I’ve got a bone to pick with gravity!
Leaves won’t stop falling and it’s getting me down. They’re everywhere. On the borders. On the paths. In the pond. In my hat.
Norman’s upset with the leaves too. Norman is a nine-month-old wire-haired Dachshund. He’s the latest recruit to our garden team. Norman’s strategy with leaves is to bark at them. While they are in the trees, as they are falling, and once they’ve landed. He’s not very smart but you can’t fault his commitment. And to be fair he barks at birds too, and worms and clouds.
There is something melancholic, elegiac even, about fallen leaves. In art, music, poetry, they often signify loss or impermanance. Unrequited love, unfulfilled promise, the inevitability of change, the fragility of life. The humble autumn leaf carries a heavy burden. No wonder it falls.
The jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ – Johnny Mercer’s reworking of the 1945 French chanson ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ (‘The Dead Leaves’) is a case in point:
Since you went away the days grow long And soon I'll hear old winter's song But I miss you most of all my darling When autumn leaves start to fall
Paul Simon’s ‘Leaves that are Green’ is equally wistful:
Once my heart was filled with love of a girl I held her close but she faded in the night Like a poem I meant to write And the leaves that are green turn to brown And they wither with the wind And they crumble in your hand…
Autumn is definitely a minor key season. Plenty of blue notes. Is it mere coincidence, I wonder, that the scientific terms for a fear of leaves (phyllophobia) and a fear of love (philophobia) are almost interchangeable?
Last month Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki released his swansong movie Fallen Leaves, a deadpan comic romance about loneliness and our thwarted need for human connection. The Scandis do autumnal world-weariness better than just about anyone else.
My beef with autumn is neither metaphysical nor symbolic; in fact, it’s remarkably prosaic. Oh, and entirely selfish. I just don’t want to rake all the bloody leaves up! In the right context I have no objection to leaves. They look great, for example, on trees. And they do that autumn colour thing with admirable gusto. I just wish they’d stay put. Because, when you’ve got to clear them up, day-in, day-out, rake them, put them into plies, barrow them to the big leaf-mould heap over yonder, only to find that the next day they’re back in ever greater numbers, well let’s just say it can get repetitive.
Had Sisyphus’ punishment been meted out in November in West Sussex rather than the arid peninsula of ancient Corinth, he would likely have found himself raking up leaves in an everlasting autumn instead of wrestling with his boulder. Albert Camus takes the inevitable failure of Sisyphus’ struggle as a springboard to examine the inherent absurdity of life. Perhaps he, too, had spent a lot of time transferring small piles of leaves into larger ones.
Some leaves have adapted clever ways in which to ingratiate themselves with grumpy gardeners. The katsura tree for example (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Aware of how annoyed we can get at this time of year this remarkable tree has evolved a neat little adaptation. As its leaves turn from plum red to buttery yellow and begin to fall a compound called ‘matol’ (also found in coffee, chicory, barley and cocoa) gets up close and personal with another sugary molecule. The result of this chemical congress is the release of an intoxicating odour redolent of candyfloss, with just a hint of cinnamon. Delicious!
I have nothing against katsura trees. They can drop all the leaves they want.
‘Stinko’ ginkgo, not so much. In direct contrast to the fragrant katsura, the fall-out (so to speak) from the ginkgo tree is decidedly malodorous. As the yellowed leaves and fruit congregate beneath their pretty boughs in October and November, a strong stench of vomit or turned milk pollutes the air. Okay so strictly speaking it’s the fruit (from the female tree) and not the leaves that emit this charming perfume, but you try raking up the combined flotsam of a hormonal ginkgo and see if you care to differentiate.
As I finish this musing in the comfort of my sitting room by a slumbering fire, Norman, I imagine, is keeping up his lonely vigil. I fear his protestations will go unnoticed. As, of course, will mine when all is said and done. Nature is indifferent to our whingeing. The world turns. Seasons come; seasons go; leaves fall. You bark at them, I pick them up, that’s just the way it is. We can either stand here and howl into abyss about it or we can take a lesson from the leaves themselves and learn to let go. I’m up for it if you are, pal. What do you say?
Norman says he’ll give it a try, which is frankly all you can ask of a small dog.