Only a month or so ago Washington was in the full flush of autumn: The trees were a flaming pageant of rusty reds, salmon pink and gold, and Rock Creek Park was a dazzling explosion of color. One morning you would find that the humdrum stretch of road to work had been transformed into a glorious fluttering canopy -- a triumphal arch. You would arrive at the office feeling stirred and thinking great thoughts.
But already the streets seem wider and emptier as the trees are stripped clean -- Washington has become a city of dead leaves, a slippery sea of them underfoot. Clinging to your shoes. Plastered to the windscreen. The scene has changed from grandiose to wistful.
On the weekend the leaf-rakers are out in gangs. In nearly every yard a solitary figure can be seen ankle-deep in leaves, raking for all he is worth. Occasionally he pauses to glance up malevolently, daring the remaining leaves to fall. No one speaks much because, unlike mowing the lawn, leaf-raking is a quiet and ruminative pastime.
Each lone raker finally organizes his mounds of leaves into neat long piles along the side of the street, so that by Monday morning each house looks like a fortified garrison, the leaves banked up like sandbags.
I was out there recently, steadily working the rake through the grass like a giant comb and feeling slightly intoxicated by the smell of earth mingled with the acrid scent of dead leaves. I could hear the rhythmic whisper of other rakes along the street. But my fellow rakers seemed, like me, to be lost in private contemplation as they worked. A few lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, studied long ago in school, drifted across my memory:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
All about life and death and nature regenerating itself. A man gets to thinking deep thoughts as he gathers in the leaves.
I remembered how, when I was a kid, we would wade joyfully through the piles of crisp leaves, kicking them up before us in a dusty flutter that tickled our noses and made us cough. And then loitering down by the old church yard after school, where in the misty dusk of a November evening we had seen a stooped figure bending over a heap of burning leaves. A vague, mystical apparition in the yellowish gloom prodding at the smoking mound. We had jeered and whistled at the old boy, hoping to startle him, and had run off shrieking with fright when he turned stiffly toward us. It had been the devil himself brandishing his pronged fork and beckoning us to damnation. We were done for. We had been marked. Those had not been dead leaves smoking pitifully in the half-light, but the charred remains of some poor damned soul. We had glimpsed hell -- but we dare not tell our parents of our satanic vision.
You start out vigorous and strong with long, no-nonsense strokes. You finish up short of breath, feebly yanking at the earth as you feel the strain in your hands and back. At last you survey with satisfaction the neat ridge of leaves along the street. You experience a sense of having tamed nature. It's a heartening sight and you stride about the yard for a few minutes dabbing the finishing touches. You are king of your own tidy castle. There's a brief surge of optimism and accomplishment.
Next morning, when you look at the lawn again speckled with leaves, you feel like the little Dutch boy with a finger in the dyke. It can't be helped. The leaves are still falling. Time is passing. Suddenly, it doesn't seem such a long, long time from May to September anymore. Somehow you don't seem able to shake off a pervading sadness.
Just the same, you'll probably be out there again next weekend in the futile and poignant struggle with nature. As you work the rake methodically the pungent smell of the leaves will sting your nostrils, stirring up nostalgia and strange longings -- the damp, cloying smell of the end of the year that reminds us that, for better or worse, another cycle is about to be completed.