All the Leaves are Brown

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Each fall, even the most nature-oblivious humans can’t help but notice—and likely marvel—as the leaves turn. Here in New York City, many folks will go as far as driving up north to New England solely to witness the spectacular shades of ginger, auburn, gold, and crimson. This annual phase of nature presages both the colder weather and the shopping day countdown that lurk in our not so distant future.

Speaking of looming holiday season consumerism, as you try to remember where you parked your SUV in that crowded shopping mall parking lot, gaze upward. Take a good long look at the leaves that have changed color and are now breaking from the trees and wafting slowly downward to finish their life’s mission…on the pavement. Imagine the shock those nutrient laden leaves experience when they land not on sodden, inviting soil but instead on the unforgiving, oil stained asphalt we all know and loathe.

More than two million acres of parks, farms, and open space are destroyed each year in the name of a little something called sprawl. During the twentieth century, for example, an area equal to all the arable land in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania was paved in the United States. This swath of terra firma requires maintenance costing in the hundreds of millions per day and the surreptitious cost of our car culture totals in the hundreds of billions per year in the U.S. alone (much of that for waging perpetual war to keep the world safe for petroleum).

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Besides the climate change, unchecked militarism, and other sinister side effects of a society beholden to the internal combustion engine, all that concrete severely impinges upon those multi-hued falling leaves—which are, by design, supposed to be introduced to microorganisms in the soil where they should theoretically land. Since we humans have seen fit to pave the planet, the rhythms of the natural world are habitually and imprudently ignored.

Here’s how the USDA Forest Service explains the aforementioned leaf-falling phenomenon: “Needles and leaves that fall are not wasted. They decompose and restock the soil with nutrients and make up part of the spongy humus layer of the forest floor that absorbs and holds rainfall. Fallen leaves also become food for numerous soil organisms vital to the forest ecosystem.” 

Theoretically.

Too many of today’s humans ultimately view leaves in search of soil organisms as a nuisance—something to raked and bagged and lugged away as quickly as possible. To leave leaves in front of your house is to risk the scorn of neighbors. Ironically, dealing with the leaves we don’t like can take us away from making a trip up north to see the leaves we do like as they change shade. We drive there, of course, in the vehicles that necessitate the highways, parking lots, off ramps, and roads that—by definition—devastate entire eco-systems and leave leaves no place to land except our three-car-wide driveways.

Human hubris aside, this vicious cycle impacts more than just our leisure time.

Here’s the USDA Forest Service again: “It could well be that the forest could no more survive without its annual replenishment from leaves than the individual tree could survive without shedding these leaves.”

I wonder if it’s too late to turn over a new leaf…

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