Nov 16, 2007

The Leaves of Fall - the Fall of Leaves

This is being written in Norway in October. Outside my window it is fall. Yellow birch and maple trees, blush-chablis cherry trees, flaming claret creepers, berbris, and rowans ... the whole autumn spectrum. The ash trees are already bare, the lilies have already withered into pale ghosts of their summer self.


The autumns of my childhood in Des Moines stand out in more graphic detail in my memory than the other seasons. But that's not surprising ... no matter where you live the autumn is a very visual time -- Iowa was no exception.

In 1950, when my family settled in Des Moines, the wretched Dutch elm disease hadn't arrived yet. It had come to Michigan and Illinois, but no farther.

Des Moines, a boring little city in most ways, was made stately and elegant by thousands of massive elms. In the summer time - when the weather got really hot - the town was mercifully protected by a green canopy that gave shade to most streets in the residential neighborhoods - a vast organic parasol. On most streets this canopy consisted of huge elms arching up and across the roads to join hands with their counterparts on the other side.

In the fall this meant tons and tons of leaves. A eighty-foot elm tree has a lot of leaves. Thousands of them mean thousands and thousands of tons of leaves. Elm leaves fall all at once: the one day you could barely glimpse the sky through a yellow-brown canopy of leaves, and the next day you would have to wade through yard-deep drifts of dry leaves, while the sky was now only lightly veiled by an airy web of branches and twigs.

I started school in 1951, appropriately enough at Elmwood School on the corner of 31st street and Brattleboro. We started school in September. September in Iowa is still hot, green summer - the fall hasn't set in yet and won't for another month. But for some strange and inexplicable reason, I clearly remember starting school every year in the fall.

In contrast to their counterparts in Asia and Europe, American cities are usually built in grid fashion aligned with the compass. For some reason it is also normal to give the streets in the one direction (e.g. East-West) names, and in the other direction (North-South) numbers. We lived in an old, rambling house on the corner of 37th and Cottage Grove. Elmwood school was on the corner of 31st and Brattleboro (why anyone would name a street in Iowa after a ski resort town in Vermont will forever remain a mystery) You would think this would mean that to go from our house to school you would walk six blocks east and one block north. Wrong. You walked four blocks east and one north. There was no 34th Street - nor any 32nd Street. Why, I had no idea. Nor could I understand why at 37th Street there was one block between Cottage Grove and University ave, but two blocks at 31st Street. As a child this was simply one of a multitude of proofs that nothing ever planned by grownups turned out as intended.

It is also a mystery why it always took a little longer than thirty minutes to walk from our house to Elmwood School. An adult would probably use about seven minutes. I was pushed out the door every morning punctually at seven thirty. The school bell rang at eight o'clock sharp. I was always five minutes late ... why or how I don't know.

But in the fall I'm sure it was the leaves that were the culprits. There were deep drifts of leaves all along the street, just begging to be waded in, jumped in, rolled in, and thrown up in the air. And what kid could resist?

Des Moines in the fifties was spacious. It wasn’t your concrete-and-glass metropolis with skyscrapers and beehive-like apartment buildings. It was sort of a very big small town: both the rich and the poor sections of town consisted of houses with front yards and back yards. In the south and west of town, both the yards and the houses were very big, and in the north and east of town they were small. And the yards had trees: big yards had lots of trees and small yards only a few - at the very least one. The elm dominated, of course, but there were also oaks and cottonwoods and maples, and horse-chestnuts, and hackberries and so on.

So when the green leaves of summer changed colors and tumbled down in the fall, the town was literally inundated by leaves. Those mountains of leaves meant different things according to your age and station … for little kids it was fantastic to just romp in them, but for the big kids and grownups it meant endless raking and burning. Two weeks in the fall the air turned misty-white and reeked of burning leaves. If the weather was dry, it would be the light, acrid smoke of a campfire, but if the weather was wet the town gasped in the heavy, steamy, choking smoke of smoldering sogginess.

And the richer you were, the bigger your yard, the more trees you had and the more leaves you had to rake and burn. Therefore, the fall was also a time when an enterprising kid could make a buck or two raking and burning leaves for people that had more money and yard than they could deal with alone.

But fall didn’t only mean leaves. There were the acorns and the buckeyes, too. Although the elms must have outnumbered the oaks by at least ten to one and the horse chestnuts by a hundred to one, there were still thousands of oaks and hundreds of horse-chestnuts in Des Moines, too. Big old oaks – white oak, black oak, yellow oak, red oak. Big old horse-chestnuts.

And big old oaks produce bushels of acorns. Acorns are a wonderful resource - they fit the hand nicely, can be tossed hard and accurately, fire well from slingshots and can be stored efficiently in pockets. The caps can be used a whistles when held right in the hand.

A single horse-chestnut tree can grow to a hundred feet and produce literally a ton of buckeyes – an ingenious nut with a spikey outer shell that becomes a nearly lethal weapon when thrown or slingshot by a child.

Every child in Des Moines was thus armed for pitched battle for weeks on end in the fall. And pitched battles there were, on every block, over every back fence, around every hedge in the town.

1 comment:

Matt said...

The area around Cottage Grove was developed by the Vermont Land Company, thus a couple of Vermonty street names including Brattleboro and Rutland. I lived on Cottage Grove where 32nd street ought to be for six years. Also, the streets north and south of University were separately surveyed and the surveys didn't quite agree, which is why several of the streets in the 3000 blocks have a jog to them as the cross University.