Thursday, December 31, 2009

White Christmas (unless it rains before Friday)

 We don’t seem to get many heavy snows before Christmas. It takes a combination of rain coming up the coast to meet a mass of cold air coming from the Kentucky. If it rains in Atlanta and the low heads northeasterly we might get some snow in the higher elevations and more often in western North Carolina. This time we took on in the chin as the path went straight towards Roanoke and then Richmond and then Norfolk and Washington, D.C.

It was quite pretty. If you didn’t have to drive in it. I didn’t quite make it home but I was fortunate enough to leave the truck at an acquaintances. It seemed to take forever to get it out of his yard this afternoon. But, retrieving the truck is, I suppose, minor. Some people spent hours stuck on the interstate. The traffic in Johnson City Friday night was crushing and angry. With I-40 closed between Asheville and Knoxville, rerouted along I-26 through Johnson City, part of detour is over Sam’s Gap which is no fun in the rain and probably dangerous in any snow. Plus manage to survive the down ski run from Sam’s Gap to Erwin on into Johnson City only to get stuck in a six-hour snow jam.

We got several inches and the trees took it badly. The neighbor’s large maple split in the middle and tore off a corner of the roof. Both of my maples were drooped to the ground. A newly-planted cypress was bent in half (but recovered nicely with a little help.) A couple of whacks with a broom handle or a good brushing by the broom on the leaves of the red oak allowed it to straighten up. Of course the very tops were curved over but nothing so far was broken. Later I took the broom and began knocking snow the lower limbs and every tree around the house stood up a bit straighter like shouldering off a great load.

Late Friday and all morning Saturday one thing I noticed from this storm and others, is the quiet and the brightness without sun. Snow dampens the sound. And since everything (!) is reflecting light the whole neighborhood glows. The brown outline of the trees with a white paint and gray background is somehow beautiful but when you take pictures comes out flat.

I have two feeders and they’re both very busy. There are lots of individual birds but not a very broad collection of species. Mostly titmouse, chickadee, cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatch. I saw two woodpeckers: downy, red-bellied. And heard a Pileated woodpecker. Heard jays and crows. Missed any sparrows or the towhee but I bet they were around.

While in my back lot, filling one of the feeders, I noticed how quiet and serene my little tree lot had become. With so much snow making the limbs larger, the place was compressed and disorienting. The familiar lines of sight were gone. The little path to and from the feeder was changed because limbs bent in the way. All these little alterations made my copse of trees more interesting and more beautiful.

Of course, in the back yard on that same trip to the feeders, I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. I could see the headline “City Man Dies in Back Yard in Sight of House.” One of the best stories for us city folks out in the woods, even if those woods are in my back yard, is Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.”

But, weather in this part of the world changes quickly. We’ll have a warm spell, the snow will melt, and then another round by Christmas. Maybe I’ll get a start on the Christmas break  by going home before the traffic gets bad and just stay up to watch it snow.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Raking Leaves (Again)

I broke my rake the other day. For the uninitiated, a rake is bunch of fingers on the end of long stick used to move leaves to the curb for the city to pick up. I was leaning on the rake trying to squash the pile so the wind wouldn’t carry too many leaves to the neighbors’ yards. The rake broke where the tines attach to the handle. Over I went, flat on my back into the pile of leaves. It was like bein’ a kid again.

I have raked leaves for a lot of years and kind of like doing it, just as long it’s not totally futile. While I have a few electric yard toys, a leaf blower is not one of them. A rake is not a natural thing to own in this gasoline/electric/fuel efficient world. Like doing dishes by hand. I don’t hurry the process. And it’s not the kind of thing you do to corral the very last leaf. It’s more for your comfort of doing the job yourself, your own labors, on a nice sunny afternoon. Not burning more gas or running up the electric bill only to get back inside to watch the finish of the game.

As Ed Bell says in his “Technology, Movement, and Sound.” “if you can’t gather up leaves without protecting your own eyes and ears, perhaps there’s a better way of doing it.” We gripe about the motionless society but we don’t do anything about it when given the chance. Besides, there is some strong attachment to the sound of the tines combing through the grass and leaves.

There is no rush but the city sets aside the first couple of weeks in November to vacuum up leaves piled at the curbside and so I have to be ready. But it’s note something that has to be done as soon as the leaves begin to fall. Part of the yard got two passes because one of my Maple trees, for whatever reasons, dropped them in two batches.

Nor is raking hard on the hearing. I like the sound of the tines and the leaves. There’s a comfort in this motion and ever so slight muscle ache. In that swishing sound of the leaves moving.

This isn’t a contest. Or at least, it shouldn’t be and I suppose part of the problem why we use machines instead of a rake is we see leaves as a nuisance that needs punishing. Or destroyed. Or captured. Like this is contest between you and the leaves and leaves must die!

In this overheated world of ours, where we at once want exercise and diet but also remotes and front door parking, surely something like raking the leaves is what we were made to do. The rake is almost as pure as a hammer. Or a one-speed bicycle. It’s basic. It only wants us to use it.

And it’s not that I don’t have tools. I have an electric hedge trimmer and an electric trimmer. And a gas lawnmower. But, I’ve used my timber saw often enough to know when it and I am overpowered by too much wood and must get out the electric chainsaw. And my long-handled clippers are much easier and quicker to grab for use than the electric shears. That knowledge or that willingness must be part of the equation.

I was tempted this year, getting a late start on the raking, to rake one evening after sundown under the full moon. It seemed romantic almost. I suspect the neighbors would have called the cops but on a warm evening, in need of burning off part of the daily frustrations, why not? I didn’t need headlights to see nor a blower to make noise nor would I get a sunburn. Unless you are out hiking or camping (in a tent), raking leaves is about as close to nature as you can get where you are in the weather and part and parcel of God and the many millennia.

Just me and my trusty sidekick, Rake, and several hundred square feet of Maple leaves.