Sunday, October 5, 2014

Leaf memories, too many leaves remembered

5 October 2014

Just a few of the varmints

Ah yes, the ubiquitous leaf blower, a special tool developed too late for my leaf raking experiences. As a kid the adults in my life had an idea of unique labor designated for children of my age. My grandparents owned a cottage at the lake. This was a summer home purchased as a leisure recreational building for members of the family to use for recreation, no one lived there, although everyone had spent the night there at least once. Everyone had special memories for this place.

The lake was a natural feature that had been built up and a part of the local area community for decades. Many of the houses built on the shores of the lake were substantial and had been in families for years. The property next to ours had an ice house on it set back from the lake front several hundred yards. Several of the long, deep properties had antique outbuildings like this which showed the different lifestyle that was the norm back in those days. The ice house had walls that were four feet thick from outer surface to the inner surface the insulation poured between the walls was dried sawdust, sealed from the damp atmosphere from the outside or inside.

In the days before refrigeration, people had ice boxes to keep perishable foods around longer. Those who lived on the lake cut their own ice from the lake in the winter time. Pictures of ice saws and teams of horses on the lake ice to pull the large (often 300 pound blocks of ice) from the water once cut from the surface. It was a local industry. People cut their own, companies cut for the retail trade. Since this was a seasonal venture, some long term safe storage was needed to keep this commodity until well into the warm season. Toward the end of a long,hot summer, ice prices fluctuated upward as the amount of reserve ice for sale dwindled.

Thus the farmer or person of means who built their own ice house could fill it up during winter when prices were low, to use throughout the coming year. With the arrival of cheap electricity and refrigeration, the ice harvest slowly disappeared as people rushed to modernity. No more hauling ice, no more emptying heavy drip pans from the ice box. Everyone wanted a Fridgidaire. The neighbor's icehouse stood toward the back of their property growing moss on its cedar shake shingles and young sapling trees in its nearby grounds. The building was solid in its construction, owing to the importance of the task for which it was designed.

Through many of the properties near where the lakeside cottage was sited were old and very tall oak trees, they appeared to be red oaks. As I recall it seemed as if years before the lake became a human mecca, before the earliest uses of the lake, before the two dueling steamboats vied to haul the summer trade to their summer retreat homes that lined the lake, the oaks began to grow. Like oaks the world over, these oaks left a chemical in the soil from their roots that made difficult the act of growing for anything other than other oak trees. The trees grew tall and unmolested, creating a solid grove of oaks that were very old, and due to their close proximity, very tall. Most of the lowest branches began fifty feet or more above the ground. They were like columns of gray bark that disappeared further up than most people are comfortable craning their necks.

There was one oak in the front of the cottage on the slight rise that came up from the water's edge. From its one low branch some fifty feet up from the ground, some earlier owner had fastened a rope tied off around the branch. The rope extended down to the ground where a board seat had been fashioned to make a tree swing. The rope was a huge hemp type of cordage about two inches in diameter. The length was so long that the swing arm was as long as a Foucault pendulum in some gothic church. Indeed among all of the stately oaks that swing seemed as if set in some natural cathedral of a different sort. The distance traveled on each traverse of that swing seemed to go through several time zones.Come Fall, and it was always late in the season, as oaks tend to hang on to their leaves more into November than October. The leaves would descend from on high with a suddenness that left no doubt the season of green was over. The leaves from those oaks would pile three feet deep, everywhere. They were deep up near the shore, in the front yard, the back yard all the way to the back property line several hundred feet from the shore.

We knew we had to get them raked up before they got wet and sodden from the autumn rains and the winter snows. There were so many of them that if the wet weather got there first the effect would be like several wet newspapers pegged to the ground to smother anything else that was there. Between the extensive shade from the canopyand the previous leaf litter smothering the ground, not much could grow there. The grass was thin and not very thick in the sandy soil. Our fall chore was to go to the lake by noon and rake and haul until dark, to get the leaves away from the shore side of the property. If the leaves were to be blown by the gathering equinox driven zephyrs onto the lake, they would become waterlogged , then sink. To disintegrate on the shallow lake bottom near shore, which would create a muck bottom where the sand and stones were now, killing the clams and crayfish we little boys loved to find on an early summer morning.

Just a quarter mile west along the shoreline from the property was the only spot along the lake that was not built up. The land was low and prone to swamp, the lake was shallow from quite a way from shore. The lake bottom here was mucky and a great hiding spot for snapping turtles to hide sunk down into the soft bottom. We called it “Turtle cove”. The property next to Turtle cove on the other side from us was about as low as one could build without sinking. They had a dock and a motor boat, but the water was so shallow that there was a trench below water that had been dredged from the lake proper in to where the boat was tied up next to the dock.

We didn't want that to happen, so we diligently drove out to the lake every fall armed with split bamboo rakes and 16 foot burlap sheets with ties at the corners to convey those thousands of leaves to the back of the property here we made huge mounds to collapse and decay in the seasons to come. We made a festival out of such a tiresome task, packing along hot chocolate, snacks and lots of soda pop. The technique was to first walk in striaghtline with shuffling steps so a to move as many leaves as possible to see the grass on the ground. Nex the rakes were employed to enlarge the narrow strip of grass into a wide patch of grass. Then the tarp was laid down and from all sides the leaves were raked, kicked, shoveled and in any manner possible moved onto the tarp. Then two or more consecutive ends were gathered and even more leaves were encouraged to join the pile growing within the burlap fibers. A third corner was gathered as even more leaves still were crammed into the burgeoning bag. Finally the burlap could contain now more. The four corners were gathered tight and the next lucky contestant would drag, haul and otherwise remove the next load of leaves to the far edge of the property. The tarp had the weight of an eighty pound bag of water softener salt. A few trips hauling the leaves soon lost its allure. But there wer many loads to move. A gsrden cart was way too small, it would be crushed by the size of those burlap bags, the wheels could not turn. The option was to pull the corners of the burlap tarp ove r the shoulder and drag the offending leaves to the approved site. It became easy to formulate tunes of heroic proportions in one's head when dragging those leaves. When I got to Michigan State and saw the grounds department dragging a power take off driven fan behind the large tractors used for grounds work, I knew that I had been born just a few years too soon.

I reasoned that idea would take off, soon there would be leaf blowers of every size for every kind of lawn job, and portable leaf vacuums too to get into the shrubbery where the leaves love to hideout, safe from the vagaries of any November wind. Wouldn't you know it, my father has one of these handy tools now. I used to have to make sure my leather work gloves were up to the raking task, those blisters were terrible in the web be tween the finger and thumb. Now you just give the pull cord a rip and blow or suck those leaves away.

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