21 May 2014
on sweeping up autumn leaves
I’ve confessed before that this is my favourite time of the year. We’ve left behind the glare and heat of summer (such as it is in Hobart) and even though the days are getting shorter and the evenings cooler, we haven’t yet been plunged into the dark drag of winter.
The other reason I love autumn is the deciduous leaves, in all their glory, from rich fiery reds to golden glowing yellows; large flag-like shapes to small, intricate specimens. My route to work has many fine trees and shrubs and even vines, making the start and end of my working day a beautiful journey.
But here’s another autumnal confession: I love sweeping up those fallen leaves. Actually, I love any kind of sweeping out in the garden, but in this season, I get to indulge in this gardening chore — well, it seems, all the time.
On the weekends, I like to start my ‘working’ day by sweeping the small undercover area outside my back door, which collects the long golden leaves of my peach and nectarine trees. Then I move methodically along the pathways around the house and in the backyard, again picking up the fruit tree leaves.
Then I start in the driveway out the front, which runs the length of my block. Here it is the larger, flatter leaves of my ornamental blossom tree. Sadly the delicate, finely serrated leaves of my cut-leaf birches are long-gone — those still-young trees are fully exposed to the winds that roar up my street, and theirs are the first leaves to be carried off. And the ruby foliage of my young viburnum shrub was lost overnight, blown off by ghastly winds. Here one day, gone the next, before I could take a photo of it.
Sometimes I follow this pattern again in the afternoon, to tidy away any end-of-day leaf fall; or perhaps I’ll just do a quick go down the driveway.
So that is the how and the when, but what about the why? Why do I find this task so appealing?
I suspect that, like doing the dishes or the weekly laundry, it’s a sense of imposing order and neatness over my world (though it is admittedly Sisyphean at times, when, as fast as I sweep, the wind throws more leaves to my feet. But if I’ve set my mind to sweep now, I’ll pigheadedly refuse to admit defeat and down my broom). It’s satisfying to clear away the fallen leaves and other garden debris from the driveway and literally have a clean sweep.
The brisk, repetitive motion is also an enjoyable form of exercise. Back and forth, to and fro, walking up and down: it’s steady and calming. I saw a neighbour use one of those contraptions that look like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and set of bagpipes — and I’m not sure whether it was sucking or blowing — but I thought, where are the cardiovascular benefits in that? And the noise! Blasting away the peace! When the neighbourhood is quiet, just the birds twittering and the rhythmic sound of straw bristles brushing the concrete, it gives me time to think.
Because sweeping can be very conducive to contemplation (perhaps it is my suburban version of Buddhist walking meditation?). The morning sweep: my mind is still foggy with sleep, thinking about what gardening or household chores are ahead of me, assessing the state of the garden — now that the days are shorter, I don’t see my garden during the working week, and this is my gentle reunion with it. It’s a good opportunity to take stock of the weather, the birds, the garden, the neighbourhood, and I guess, me. Those repetitive movements can lull one into introspection. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing with my life, what I could be doing; sometimes I compose sentences and turn over phrases and tweak words, not with a red pen in my hand but a broom. Mowing the lawn certainly doesn’t inspire such quiet moments of reflection, or such a sense of calm, purpose, order. I shall be sad when the autumn leaves have completely fallen and finished, and not just because of the bare branches they leave behind. I will no longer have quite so much sweeping to do.