Each tree in the yard has spent the entire spring and summer building itself up like an athlete. Pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, water and nutrients from the soil, the trees have been sending mass to leaves, perfectly designed for converting sunlight into energy.
Then autumn arrives and big changes happen in a rush. Leaves flare into operatic color only to fall into their own pyres. They blanket the yard. They transform everything about the luxuriously abundant life all around into a gnarled bed of dead, unfulfilled promises. When winter comes all that remains are the morose stalks and stems and trunks of has-been plants.
For us looking on, there’s a strong urge to pick up a rake and clear it all out. Our habit of romanticizing the annual, passionate outpouring of nature’s spectacular Liebestod is one of the great cross-cultural rationalizations, enabling us to endure in the face of our own mortality, year to year.
Standing at the edge of the yard, rake in hand, you know that no single stroke will make a bit of difference on the blanket of leaves before you. That’s the moment of decision. The job is going to take work, and lots of of it. Without applied effort, those decaying leaves will choke all new growth in the spring, at least in terms of the kind of growth acceptable to ordinary suburban homeowners’ associations.
One option is to allow the natural world to run it’s own course. Trees have been shedding their leaves since the ancient world, and far away from minivans cradled by well-paved driveways, leaves have traditionally returned to the Earth without anyone’s help every autumn. But you’re a homeowner. You don’t want a storm of leaves to kill your hard won grassy yard (a questionable practice, by the way, if you’re starting to develop enlightened views of ecological sustainability). For better or worse, you commit to the big job, lean in to the task, and start making piles.
I’m proposing an alternate view. As you pull the rake stroke by stroke, there’s nothing in your field of view but a leafy aggregate, a singular object made of thousands of individual pieces. Yet if you stop your labor, crouch down at the tines of your rake and examine a handful of leaves, you’ll immediately notice how each one is different. Each may be similar to the next, but only superficially. One has a coquettish curl in the center lobe; one has a erotic shock of orange blooming around its stem; one still glows vaguely green, shaken lose from it’s arbor tether a few days early. One is cracked; one’s totally brown and dry; one blown in from the tree across the street like a nosy neighbor. All together in a mass, they’re tons of dead leaves to rake into compost. By themselves they’re elegant and unique.
The mass of leaves depends on each one growing by itself. Each leaf may have grown amid the company of others, part of a larger whole, but also in it’s own way, independently, separately, destined to its own individual physique.
I’m writing during a few minutes at a break on set, amidst a jumble of a million other things. (Or, truth be told, I really just captured the big points about this blog in notes that day on set. I actually assembled cogent sentences a couple of days later, if you must know the truth!) As I consider the afternoon ahead, I’m aware that the grip, the gaffer, the pair of production assistants and handful of others involved in the project are each doing unique things to make it come together into a single piece. Part of a larger whole, they each have something unique and specific to deliver. Observed independently their labor doesn’t amount to much, but the entirety of the shooting day today would have been impossible without their collective mass, all together, all part of something else.
One leaf at a time, the renewal of the world hides in the expenditures of small acts accumulated. One sentence at a time this very essay has grown, just as my video production has grown one electrical cable, one lighting instrument, one lens and actor and audio cue at a time. Very little counts for anything by itself in the world. It’s often in concert that we discover the deepest value of things. Simultaneously, it’s vital to notice the component parts. The leaves matter individually, even as they amass power when piled up in a collective.
That’s why the next time you’re working on a project requiring many hands to complete, be sure to introduce yourself to the person making coffee with as much generosity as you introduce yourself to the top people on the team. The sum total of the effort requires the sum total of all involved.