After a Monday evening spent at a town council meeting earlier this week, I was struck by how I feel pleasure when others feel fear. Take as a for instance my bike ride over to town hall. There was the mild exhilaration of exercise, the comfortable temperature, deep breaths of evening air, and a mist that felt refreshing on the face. I later told someone at the meeting about the pleasure of mist, and she said she'd worry that the bicycle tires might slip on the pavement. Well, bicycle safety is important, but in an instant, pleasure was turned into fear.
At the meeting, a Princeton Environmental Commission member presented a resolution on leaf collection. There has long been a tradition of dumping any and all yardwaste, leaves and brush out on the street, helter skelter, with the expectation that big machines will come to carry it away. The commission's resolution calls this practice wasteful, dangerous and largely unnecessary, given that nature long ago perfected the art of breaking down leaves, etc. into valuable fertilizer for the next year's growth. But Princeton, somewhat like sending kids to private schools, has traditionally also sent its leaves to a finishing school outside of town, where the passage from raw bits to finished compost is surely more reliable than homeschooling leaves in a back corner of the yard. In New Jersey, it could be called "pay to decay".
With leaves, as with a bicycle, I register pleasure where others experience fear. I have vivid memories as a child of the whole family raking the yard. The brightly colored leaves would dance before us as we raked them onto a tarp and hauled them down to the woods. I'd take a running jump into the high, loose pile of dry leaves, be surrounded by their crispness and color, then crawl out, fluff up the pile and take another running leap. Years later, wanting to grow some tomatoes in our soil of dense clay, I knew to go to where observatory's grounds crew had been dumping leaves in the woods year after year, in a pile so large and broad that it had overwhelmed the capacity of the trees to consume all the nutrients. I dug down to get the richest compost anyone could desire.
But at the town council meeting, this pleasure too was injected with fear. One council member asserted that leaf piles in the woods could kill trees, the logic being that if leaves are piled too high, they could cut off water and oxygen to roots. What I have observed is quite the opposite, that tree roots, like kids, go running towards any pile of leaves just as fast as their apical meristems can carry them. Gardeners hoping to get compost from a normal-sized leaf pile in the backyard will likely find that the tree roots have beaten them to the goodies.
The biggest fear for council members, though, was aroused by the commission's suggestion that leaf/yardwaste collection be phased out in coming years. There was a promise made during consolidation that there would be no cut in services, particularly to borough homeowners with small lots. The urge to dump leaves on the street, which in turn sets in perpetual motion the scramble of town employees to deal with the mess, seems now as deeply embedded in the populace as the migratory instinct in wildlife. Though we are one of the most adaptable species on the planet, anyone wishing to change that entrenched horticultural habit will have to slog through a blizzard of rationalizations for why policy, and people, couldn't possible change. Council members may well have concluded that hell hath no fury like a leaf spurner spurned.
For someone like me, who has long seen leaves as a gift to be valued, this mass banishment of leaves to distant locales is hard to fathom. So much depends on whether one perceives nature to be ally or enemy.