Two Acres and a Pile of Leaves

| 9/19/2011 4:16:08 PM

rakeScritch, scritch, scritch. As a shovel to soil, axe to wood or chisel to stone—putting the rake to leaves is a timeless task of cosmic constancy. When I find myself taunted, twisted and oddly bound by the realm of infinite possibility in life, there is welcome peace in the simple, undeniable progress of a big leaf pile.

For so many reasons, this is good work: my feet are gentle on the ground, and my hands hold the tool—quiet, ancient—perfectly suited to this task. Scritch, scritch. There is room here for thought. It dances among my steady breath and between the shuttering leaves, all at once connected and irrelevant, meaningful and meaningless. With an undeserved degree of self-satisfaction, I am pleased by this paradox. I tell myself that there is wisdom in there somewhere, and then I pause, assume a familiar propped position, and begin to contemplate the purpose of this heady chore.

This is chestnut-tree detritus. Every autumn, descending in ligneous, spiny abandon, this fawn mat of organic matter blankets Digging Roots, our two-acre urban farm. If raked into huge piles and left undisturbed for a few years, the unfriendly mix of burrs and leaves would eventually mellow into a nutrient-rich leaf mold. If, on the other hand, it were left in place beneath the expansive arboreal reach, the very same thing would happen on a much longer timeline—as on a forest floor—and we would sacrifice valuable summer pasture, the ability to easily pluck chestnuts from the ground and perhaps the tolerance of our 12 neighbors, who are not keen on these suburban fence-lines becoming buried beneath wind-blown leaves. And so we rake.

Scritch, scritch. Resuming the satisfying rhythm, I cannot help but feel somewhat conflicted about this energy expenditure. Will I be here to utilize this leaf mold? Does it matter if I am? Does true stewardship require a sense of security?

My wife Sarah and I moved to this suburban lot roughly three years ago, ecstatic about the opportunity to develop our farming enterprise within an inspiringly vibrant social and professional community. We gladly accepted the responsibility of tending two close-in acres for what seemed very reasonable rent and the freedom to experiment with small-scale farming systems. If two acres proved an overwhelming task, we might have the social capital to rethink our long-term aspirations. Maybe I’d go back to school or take up a trade, or open a café. There are surely many ways to build a well-rounded, fulfilling livelihood.

But two acres isn’t too much for us. Quite the opposite—it isn’t enough, and we are yearning for more. The more we plan, the more we learn, the more we allow ourselves to reach for a full-time farming future, the more difficult it becomes to rake leased chestnut leaves on a sparkling Saturday afternoon. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment in time when we became dissatisfied with our short-term arrangement. Slowly, subtly, we began to question the sanity in a system that does not encourage long-term decisions about our place.

9/26/2011 3:39:15 PM

Hi there,I was wondering if you have leaves that you'd like to give away? Or if I could perhaps come by and rake them for you? I'd like a big pile of leaves for a photo I want to take. I just don't know where in Philly to find the most leaves. I came across your article and thought I could help. What are your thoughts? Thank you, Jenny

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