The mid-October afternoon had changed from unseasonably warm to suddenly cool and blustery. We came home from apple picking to oak leaves piled at the end of our driveway, even though I’d raked them just the previous week.
We’d been to an orchard in northern Illinois earlier that day, and the weather had felt like mid-June, not mid-October. Temperatures in the low seventies, no-see-ums biting my bare arms, a stealthy sunburn prickling my fair skin. I used to bundle up in fall clothing for apple picking—sweater adorned with seasonal imagery, hiking boots, knit hat, autumn-colored scarf. That morning, I donned sneakers, jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, a rust-colored corduroy jacket, but no scarf. By the time we got to the orchard, it felt too warm even for corduroy. I left the jacket on, although I knew I’d need to take it off and tie it around my waist a little later. At least its color echoed the increasingly warm hues of the trees on the edges of the fields.
By the time we got home, the weather had turned. Gray clouds mottled the sky in the west, and a firm breeze sent more leaves fluttering to the ground. Time for more raking. Autumn’s golden splendor felt like a blessing on summer’s bounty, but the evening’s gusting winds and early dusk offered a prayer, too, for the chilly darkness of the coming winter.
I’d made a first pass at raking the week previous, but now leaves covered the pavement once again. I grabbed the rake from the side of the house and scraped at the newly fallen leaves, scooping them into the compost bin for the city to pick up next week. When that filled up, I piled them into the wheelbarrow and took the leaves to the small compost pile at the back of our yard.
I moved on to the deck. More leaves there, too—oak, maple, beech, in all the fall colors. They had drifted under our dining table, clustered on the rocking chair, dusted down into the worn crevices between the deck’s wooden slats. Leaves piled against the fence, covering the mushroom-coated logs we’d stacked there after a tree-trimming a couple of years ago. They’d landed on the air conditioning fan, piling up between the unit and the house and settling in drifts against the rick rack that kept leaves from blowing underneath the deck. As I worked, the rake’s plastic green tines made a soft scraping noise against last year’s fresh coat of paint.
My husband came outside to check my progress. I knew what he was about to say. “Raking! So much raking! It’s the one thing I hate about fall!” he exclaimed. “I don’t suppose you’ll let us get a leaf blower this year?”
“Maybe an electric one,” I said, remembering the sound of yesterday’s lawn crew in the neighbor’s yard, the roar of their blowers’ engines driving me inside on a fine fall day, scaring animals, disrupting the habitats of tiny creatures, and polluting with smoke and sound. “Certainly not a gas one!”
It felt good, raking while the cool wind rustled my hair. I liked the whooshing sound the rake made as it swept over the grass. I liked the joy that lit up my children’s faces at the sight of a tremendous leaf pile. I liked how the need to rake made a place—like the Chicago suburb in which we now lived, or the tree-studded quads of the college I’d attended—feel a little bit more like home.
Needing a rake reminded me of the childhood years I spent living in California, which I remember in fall as a place effectively devoid of leaf piles. After moving to the Bay Area at the age of six, still the perfect age for jumping in leaves, I’d thought longingly of our former home in Massachusetts, remembering the towering heaps of red and gold my parents assembled every fall, seemingly for the sole purpose of letting my brother and I jump in them, ecstatic. In California, the spreading cherry tree in our front yard (which never flowered or, for that matter, put out fruit, but at least offered place to climb and a branch from which to hang a swing) only ever put down enough leaves to make the smallest of piles, so small that my knees felt the hard dirt ground when they landed there after a hopeful plunge.
I’ve carried these autumn memories with me ever since, and when I’ve lived somewhere where I can rake, I’ve raked. Maybe I’m making up for lost time, or maybe I simply feel as if I’m taking care of a little piece of land, tucking it up for fall and the winter ahead.
It’s not much in the way of work, or activism, or even connection to the land. Like virtually all of my raking experiences, this one is decidedly suburban, down to the local ordinance that requires the homeowner to mow and clear the leaves from the greenway that separates the sidewalk from the street.
Most days, raking feels futile. You fill up the compost bins and bags or you rake your leaves to the street for a vacuum to take them away, or you add them to the big pile somewhere in the yard, until the pile gets taller and taller and it’s harder and harder to add more leaves. More leaves fall again before you’re done. Raking leaves feels like a Sisyphean effort, piling up time and time again and sometimes becoming heavy with rain, snow, or sleet.
Today, the tines of the rake move the leaves down off the deck and onto the cement path that used to lead to a garage door, but which now stops abruptly a few feet into our yard. The grating sound of the rake scraping across concrete reminds me of fingernails across a chalkboard, but I move the leaves down the path regardless. Raking wouldn’t be the same without its rhythmic pulse or the different sounds generated by the ground underneath.
Today I scoop the leaves up at the end of the cement path and lay a fire pit’s worth of them in the nearby cement-block ring, adding some logs so that it feels more like an ordinary fire. I add newspaper and a kindling spark, and the leaves began to crackle and smoke.
I burn a few leaves this way every year, even though we’re not supposed to. I keep an eye on the fire for anything amiss, and let the scent take me somewhere else. Today, my mind drifts to the mountains of North Carolina where I lived for a few years in my early thirties. Every fall, the older homes in the mountain valleys cranked up their wood stoves. As we drove through the coves to visit friends or test out new, but slightly far-flung restaurants, I’d roll my car window down, letting in the deepening cold just so I could smell the dusky air. By December, the smoke would hang heavy in the valley, never heavy enough to count as smog, but enough to remind me of the turning of the seasons and the changing of the world. It made me want to leave our convenient modern home for a cabin in the woods, a home I could tuck into for the winter, warming myself by the searing heat of a wood-fired stove.
We don’t have a wood stove in our century-old suburban house outside Chicago, just a regular fireplace and chimney. I’ve been lighting a fire every day for the past week, avoiding turning on the furnace for as long as I can. I’d love to put a wood stove in, but that’s not happening, and neither is running away to a cabin in the woods. They’re hard to find in suburban Chicago, so I rake leaves instead, in the home I know I’m lucky to have in these precarious times.
I pile more leaves on the fire in the pit, and it smothers briefly, smoke furling out from the edges before the new leaves catch fire and burn. A few crackling tendrils blow upwards in the wind, and as I watch the smoking embers fly away unpredictably, I’m reminded of why we’re not supposed to burn our leaves in the suburbs. The embers die out and turns to ash a few feet up and away. This is what hope feels like in the aching days of Covid-19, a looming presidential election, and climate change unchecked.
Fall isn’t supposed to feel hopeful, I think to myself as I get up and find some water to douse the fire. It seems that most people prefer summer’s brightness, but here I am, feeling the seasons change in my dry skin, my hair tangled by the wind, welcoming it in. “Fall is cold and depressing, a reminder of winter,” I hear people say. After all, the world is shutting down and now, with a pandemic raging, it shuts us in as we move toward winter.
To me, though, this simple act of caring for my home in order to prepare for winter feels like an absurd act of hope. Hope that if there is a fall, if there are leaves, winter is not far away, and the seasons will still change. This past summer, I used last year’s compost to nourish my garden. Raking reminds me that the hard work that comes with this season of a dying world may still one day yield to spring and nourishment.
Nourishment or not, raking feels like a Hail Mary for a changing world. I can’t help but think about my warm bare arms reaching into apple trees, and all the other ways the world is changing. Raking, despite its day-to-day futility, suggests that the climate’s shifting patterns have not yet wreaked total havoc on this world. Instead, if I can just rake fall leaves for one more autumn, perhaps there’s a way to hold onto one of the things I love best about this planet before the warmth we humans have added threatens to change the pattern of the leaves forever. It reminds me that maybe, just maybe, hope will not flicker like an ember and die, but will find a better fuel, and flourish.
What’s more, raking feels like hope because it’s hard and sometimes futile work, because even though the leaf blower I refuse to use would make it easier to clear the debris from behind bushes and hard-to-reach places, the rake lets me proceed with care, scooping around the bottom of a bush and leaving some leaves behind for a small creature to use as warmth to endure the winter. With each swooping scrape of the rake across grass, cement, or wood, raking leaves reminds me that caring for people and the world we live in isn’t always easy; sometimes results only come after hard effort, over and over again until the job is done and the home is ready for winter—ready for what comes next.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.