What to do with the Blown-Down Leaves?

While the weather has been wonderfully warm extending a late summer magically into early November (what an unexpected delight the tall cosmos flowers still waving in the home “sunny border” still are even after a couple of light overnight frosts) of course it cannot continue forever.

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But so far there haven’t been the strong winds that blast all of the leaves from the trees. Wonderful but also frustrating: our back lawn is carpeted with butter yellow leaves from the small leaved lime. Living in a house built in the late 1960s/early 70s we are, happily surrounded by gardens that boast mature trees. Now it is possible to see again the three year old magpies nest in the twin trunked silver birch, apples still left on a couple of trees over the eight foot wall and cones on the Korean pine. But as I well know I’ll clear all this fall of leaves up , put ‘em into bags and the next morning the wind’ll have me doing it all over again. I have some notion of the – now frightfully dated – middle class family in the Ladybird Books which was part of my primary school reading scheme in which the father, smoking a pipe, raked up leaves from the lawn, wheelbarrowed them to a pile and set fire to them.

This confused me somewhat. At our house the leaves were always added to a trench in the vegetable garden. But burning them was better? In what way? Certainly I have always loved a good fire but surely this was a natural benefit to the soil to add the leaf mould?

These books, so set in time and place, have been spoofed by recent publications (The Ladybird Book of the Shed, How It Works: The Husbaand) and some performed a couple of years ago on the BBC Radio programme chaired by the Late Sir Terry Wogan.

Image result for ladybird books

It is also worth mentioning in passing the original wonderfully illustrated Ladybird series What to Look for in Winter. A book for each of the seasons, which a friend cuttingly said had posed pictures “because it just wasn’t possible that so many species would ever be in the same space at the same time.” I think the artist was C.F. Tunnicliffe, who, if memory serves also designed stamps for the Royal Mail.

Image result for ladybird what to look for in autumn

Speaking, or rather more correctly writing, about reading (well it was kind of, wasn’t it?) I have still to get started on Salar the Salmon, but have been pondering why I enjoyed it so much the first time I read it (as a child) and why, even when I watched the film I didn’t see all of the story: the context of social structures, the evocation of seasons and landscapes. I wonder what the story would mean to a youngster reading it in this, the twenty first century (where and when few things are as they were). Maybe Richard Adam’s animal fable Watership Down, or the adventures of The Animals of Farthing Wood might mean more?

Image result for animals of Farthing Wood

Back to gathering up the leaves however. The skies overhead remain optimistic and bright; fantastic however in the week leading up to November 5th (British celebrations of Bonfire/Guy Fawkes Night) suggested that the actual day (Saturday for once this year) will have a dry, cold evening: a perfect night, in other words for a fine fire and fireworks!

So, my small quandary is whether to take the leaves to the allotment for the usual pile-of-leaves mound or take ‘em down to mom’s to add to the bonfire. Any advice Janet? John?

5th November is also my brother’s birthday and so, living as a child in the Staffordshire countryside these two facts were wonderful reasons for celebrations. Neighbours, friends and relatives (sometimes all one and the same thing!) joining together to build bonfires of epic sizes and organise a firework display; by the by each of us children were given responsibilities (“You’re old enough to light the fireworks now … but be careful what you are doing.”) and, in turn these duties have been passed on to our own children.

A couple of years ago, sadly we lost a marvellous friend (of many years and bonfires) who was killed literally buying fireworks for that year’s bonfire. Stewart Staples (God bless yer mate, we miss you!).

It is, of course, more complicated now. To get everyone together (we live so far apart) but we have been able to keep up the tradition: bonfire at my mother’s house, food and drinks at our house. Preparations have to begin early; clearing the weeds – mainly nettles that grow in the “bonfire patch”, collecting the fuel (skip-diving, hedge trimmings, casual walks along the lanes, old cast-out furniture) … then building the pile on the morning (current wisdom says building it earlier may have hedgehogs – a species in some danger of extinction, building hibernation dens in it and being killed when the fire is lit.

I drive down the November morning roads and, with brother-in-law Geoff, stack up the wood. There are also umpteen sacks of papers from next door (what are neighbours for if not to do each other favours?) that need burning. They go into the bottom of the pile. My brother doesn’t make it to this part of the process; he and I were in Leamington Spa the night before at an Ian Hunter (and the Rant Band concert – and he’s never been famous as an early riser, let’s face it (my brother that is, not Ian Hunter)).

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He is, however, properly on time to get us to the Walsall F.A. Cup game against Macclesfield. The less said about the game the better the beer as once the respectful Remembrance silence had been observed it all went downhill in a pear shaped fashion. This is our last home game before November 11th (Armistice Day) –  a day dedicated to remembering those who lost their lives – or had their lives affected – by the Great (and subsequent) Wars. The symbol of this, as I was taught, is the field poppy. Because, it is said these were the first flowers to show on the battlefields when peace returned. (Confusingly in a recent pub quiz the answer to a question revealed that the French use a “cornflower” (or should that be a bluebell?) as the symbol of remembrance. Discussion over this takes some time and passes the boring passages of play during the game (and there are more than a few of those … unless you are a Silkmen* fan

Then, with darkness and star ridden skies beckoning, avoiding the massive influx of cars and associated poor parking we dodge the Star Bonfire crowds, head down the road and get ready to light the fire.

The fire lights very easily – why not, it was built by self-confessed experts? -, burns well, beers are passed around; new people join the group (strangers are only friends who haven’t yet met each other) and fireworks crackle and fizz. Some spectacular rockets, though the descending carcasses I will discover next morning, miss us only by a couple of wide strides.

 

The skies above are beautifully clear, constellations visible with a low, less-than half moon. As usual the side of me facing the roaring fire is too hot, but my back is cold. Maybe this is the real purpose of bonfire night: a reminder that there is going to be cold now and indoors is a good place to be. I remember ,as a child, having the thought that I could keep a bonfire going for a whole year; lighting next year’s fire with a spark from the previous year’s fire. I knew that, if I could steal fifteen minutes before going to school I could add enough fuel to keep it alight until school finished, then add more to keep it going over night … Reality cruelly kicks in at some point, but memories crept in while I was watching the fire (as they will I guess).

Back to the house for the cornucopia: burgers, hot dogs, salads, dips, bread, a choice of cheese, biscuits and … birthday cake – of course.

Oh yeah: what did I do with the four bags of assorted leaves? I trucked them up to the allotment where we will leave them to decompose and add them to the soil as a conditioner in spring (usually spread on top of dug soil so that earthworms will drag them down into their burrows. Couldn’t bring myself to waste the potential.

 

* Why are Macclesfield known as the Silkmen?

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