Morning light slants, setting heaps of golden leaves afire. It’s so lovely.
As I bike by, families are outside raking, making great piles for small offspring to leap into. There are peals of laughter amidst flying leaves. American Beauty portraits are taken of toddlers. Minnesota is celebrating her seasons .
Why am I sad?
It’s not existential angst, in spite of the fleeting nature of this glorious moment. It’s not that winter is coming, although that is sobering enough .
It’s that all those piles are going into bags. Lined up on front lawns, standing in phalanxes at the end of every drive, all of them are headed for the cities’ compost sites. That’s what is making me so sad.
Those bags are a symptom of our disconnect from natural cycles. Trees grow leaves; habitat and food for myriad life forms. Those leaves are supposed to fall and their nutrients return to the earth below that tree. The inhabitants of that leafy canopy actually need to stay near to their shelter and food source for survival.
Nature takes care of itself best when it has a rich interconnected web of life cycles. Called plant guilds in permaculture terms, each supports the other with habitat, forage, pollination, pest predation, nutrients and moisture retention .
Swept clean of all diversity, lawns do none of these things. They are monocultures. They break the cycle of nutrients. Lawns leave our trees bereft of their companion plants and beneficial insects. The trees suffer. Pollinators starve. Our entire ecosystem is impoverished for the sake of nothing but grass, a suburban icon of emptiness.
Is it any wonder we’ve lost 50% of our wildlife worldwide in the last forty years ?
Many of you don’t know that I came to pollinator activism through raising butterflies and moths. Some of Minnesota’s most beautiful creatures spend the first half of their lives in our trees’ canopies. At summer’s end they wrap themselves in a silken blanket, curled and camouflaged in a leaf. Then they fall to the ground along with all those other leaves, hidden, to sleep the winter and emerge in the early summer to begin their cycle anew.
That is, if they’re not mulched and sent to the compost site first.
Luna moths, those fairy emissaries of the night with their pale green glowing wings, are one beautiful species that overwinters in the leaf litter below their food source, the birch or black walnut.
Another is the polyphemus, also of the grand silkworm family. Feeding on maple and red oak, they used to be common. With gorgeous tawny gold wings four and half inches across, they are only a little smaller than their cousins, the giant Cecropias.
Polyphemus are impossibly cute with great feathery antennae and furry faces. This last phase of their life is solely for reproduction. They have no mouth parts, subsisting instead on the energy stored in their plump furry bodies from that previous year’s summer spent quietly munching as caterpillars high in the tree canopy. The great blue eyes on their wings are intended to frighten predators, and are their only defense.
Unfortunately, big blue eyes are no defense against mulching.
Rake or blow, but please, leave those leaves in your yard. The less grass the better! Create ever expanding islands of mixed shrubs, plants, and ground covers around your trees and perimeters. Mimic the layers of a forest or meadow in form and function. Shrink the grass. Grow your plant guilds. There are so many living reasons to do so.
If I hadn’t stopped bagging my leaves I would never have witnessed wild Polyphemus emerging in my own yard .
You may have seen me last weekend with a borrowed louder-than-bombs fume spewing leaf blower, heaping leaves onto the garden beds and the shrubby perimeters. I’d rather rake than blow, but the quart of fuel it burns is less than I’d use for repeated trips to physical therapy for a bad rotator cuff. Next year, I’m going to have even less grass, and more cycles of life will be connected vertically, from treetop to soil. I may never have to borrow that louder-than-bombs-blower again.
It’s because I’m keeping my leaves that right around Midsummer’s Eve, we get to host our own yearly Night of the Polyphemus Butterfly Release Party. Some of the guests are likely to be wild. You’re invited, too. It’ll be magical.