I haven't much cared for raking leaves since I was a kid. Back then, a few of the more enterprising boys in my neighborhood would race door-to-door in an effort to beat each other to the next lawn. Depending on its size, raking this lawn or that one might yield a quarter or two. That sounds like a pittance, but you have to remember that comic books cost a mere 12 cents in those days, and the novelties at State Street's Moon Fun Shop weren't much more expensive.
At some point, raking leaves became menial. I forget when I lost interest, but it might have corresponded to that age when I woke up more jaded, the things I coveted grew more expensive and better-paying work became available. Since then, raking leaves has held about as much appeal as washing storm windows and swapping out the screens, or any of those other autumn tasks burdened with the stink of obligation.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself raking the leaves this fall - and enjoying it.
Blindsided by the realization, I stopped to wonder what had happened. What had changed? What the hell?
The questions asked, I returned to the task at hand while I tried to figure out the answers. Here I was, wielding an ancient agricultural tool, engaged in a seasonal ritual that is repeated every year at about this time. Was that it? The ritual of it? And if so, what was it about the ritual that was so appealing all of a sudden?
The task remained laborious, menial, slow, deliberate. Perhaps my shift in attitude could be explained in terms as simple as coming to appreciate menial labor and its slow, deliberate result.
Or maybe it was the tool. The noun and verb forms of rake have cognates in Dutch and German as well as vintage English. As a tool that has endured for centuries, the rake shares a simplicity with other fundamental implements that wage work in quiet ways - contrasting with modern powered conveniences that perform the same task, but offend the ear and disturb the peace.
Yeah, I know: Luddite. But I defy you to find a muted rhythm in leaf-blowing comparable to that of raking leaves. Perhaps that was the tipping point. The raking, raking and raking, then the pausing to rest for a moment and to gaze up at a sky rendered deep blue by low humidity, then more raking, raking, raking. The meditative rhythm of each stroke of the rake punctuates with semicolons another year passed - of leaves grown out on branches that had been bare a few days before the transition from sere winter to blooming spring, then a pale luminous green, then a rich dark canopy; then a ripe yellow and orange and red, now fallen onto the lawn for collection.
Collection. Maybe that was the sudden, adult-onset appeal of raking. The gathering up of the fallen leaves, of the last, most vivid terrestrial colors of the year before the onset of the winter palette of white snow, of gray, silver and black ice and of bare trees. The gathering up of colors feels ceremonial in nature. There is a finality to raking leaves that is equal parts mournful, nostalgic and hopeful that more leaves might come again next spring. It represents a coming to terms with the progress of the clock and calendar, a sense of passing a chronological marker from which there is no retreat and at which there is no stopping. The only way is forward.
I'm still thinking this change through. Now that the leaves have been raked, there is time for thinking before the snow flies and the shoveling starts. Perhaps it is not important to understand how or why I started to enjoy raking laves. Perhaps it is enough to recognize that I do.
Now if I could only find some way to shift my bad attitude toward washing the storm windows and swapping out the screens.