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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp


Title:     Leafing
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

Poets, I said, have kept pigs for an escape from their poetry. But keeping pigs is not all prose. I put my old clothes on to feed him, it is true; he takes me out behind the barn; but he also takes me one day in the year out into the woods--a whole day in the woods--with rake and sacks and hay-rig, and the four boys, to gather him leaves for bedding.

Leafing Day is one of the days in red on the Mullein Hill Calendar; and of all our days in the woods surely none of them is fresher, more fragrant, more joyous, and fuller of poetry than the day we go to rake and sack and bring home the leaves for the pig.

You never went after leaves for the pigs? Perhaps you never even had a pig. But a pig is worth having, if only to see the comfort he takes in the big bed of dry leaves you give him in the sunny corner of his pen. And, if leafing had no other reward, the thought of the snoozing, snoring pig buried to his winking snout in the bed, would give joy and zest enough to the labor.

But leafing like every other humble labor of our life here in the Hills of Hingham has its own reward,--and when you can say that of any labor you are speaking of its poetry.

We jolt across the bumpy field, strike into the back wood-road, and turn off upon an old stumpy track over which cordwood was carted years ago. Here in the hollow at the foot of a high wooded hill the winds have whirled the oak and maple leaves into drifts almost knee-deep.

We are off the main road, far into the heart of the woods. We straddle stumps, bend down saplings, stop while the horse takes a bite of sweet birch, tack and tip and tumble and back through the tight squeezes between the trees; and finally, after a prodigious amount of "whoa"-ing and "oh"-ing and squealing and screeching, we land right side up and so headed that we can start the load out toward the open road.

You can yell all you want to when you go leafing, yell at every stump you hit, yell every time a limb knocks off your hat or catches you under the chin, yell when the horse stops suddenly to browse on the twigs, and stands you meekly on your head in the bottom of the rig. You can screech and howl and yell like the wild Indian that you are; you can dive and wrestle in the piles of leaves, and cut all the crazy capers you know; for this is a Saturday; these are the wild woods and the noisy leaves; and who is there looking on besides the mocking jays and the crows?

The leaves pile up. The wind blows keen among the tall, naked trees; the dull clouds hang low above the ridge; and through the cold gray of the maple swamp below peers the ghostly face of Winter.

You start up the ridge with your rake, and draw down another pile, thinking, as you work, of the pig. The thought is pleasing. The warm glow all over your body strikes in to your heart. You rake away as if it were your own bed you were gathering--as really it is. He that rakes for his pig rakes also for himself. A merciful man is merciful to his beast, and he that gathers leaves for his pig spreads a blanket of down over his own winter bed.

Is it to warm my feet on winter nights that I pull on my boots at ten o'clock and go my round at the barn? Yet it does warm my feet, through and through, to look into the stalls and see the cow chewing her cud, and the horse cleaning up his supper hay, standing to his fetlocks in his golden bed of new rye-straw; and then, going to the pig's pen, to hear him snoring louder than the north wind, somewhere in the depths of his leaf-bed, far out of sight. It warms my feet, it also warms my heart.

So the leaves pile up. How good a thing it is to have a pig to work for! What zest and purpose it lends to one's raking and piling and storing! If I could get nothing else to spend myself on, I should surely get me a pig. Then, when I went to walk in the woods, I should be obliged occasionally to carry a rake and a bag with me, much better things to take into the woods than empty hands, and sure to scratch into light a number of objects that would never come within the range of opera-glass or gun or walking-stick. To see things through a twenty-four-toothed rake is to see them very close, as through a microscope magnifying twenty-four diameters.

And so, as the leaves pile up, we keep a sharp lookout for what the rake uncovers; here under a rotten stump a hatful of acorns, probably gathered by the white-footed wood-mouse. For the stump "gives" at the touch of the rake, and a light kick topples it down hill, spilling out a big nest of feathers and three dainty little creatures that scurry into the leaf-piles like streaks of daylight. They are the white-footed mice, long-tailed, big-eared, and as clean and high-bred-looking as greyhounds.

Combing down the steep hillside with our rakes, we dislodge a large stone, exposing a black patch of fibrous roots and leaf-mould, in which something moves and disappears. Scooping up a double handful of the mould, we capture a little red-backed salamander.

Listen! Something piping! Above the rustle of the leaves we, too, hear a "fine, plaintive" sound--no, a shrill and ringing little racket, rather, about the bigness of a penny whistle.

Dropping the rake, we cautiously follow up the call (it seems to speak out of every tree-trunk!) and find the piper clinging to a twig, no salamander at all, but a tiny wood-frog. Pickering's hyla, his little bagpipe blown almost to bursting as he tries to rally the scattered summer by his tiny, mighty "skirl." Take him nose and toes, he is surely as much as an inch long; not very large to pipe against this north wind that has been turned loose in the bare woods.

We go back to our raking. Above us, among the stones of the slope, hang bunches of Christmas fern; around the foot of the trees we uncover trailing clusters of gray-green partridge vine, glowing with crimson berries; we rake up the prince's-pine, pipsissewa, creeping-Jennie, and wintergreen red with ripe berries--a whole bouquet of evergreens, exquisite, fairy-like forms that later shall gladden our Christmas table.

But how they gladden and cheer the October woods! Summer dead? Hope all gone? Life vanished away? See here, under this big pine, a whole garden of arbutus, green and budded, almost ready to bloom! The snows shall come before their sweet eyes open; but open they will at the very first touch of spring. We will gather a few, and let them wake up in saucers of clean water in our sunny south windows.

Leaves for the pig, and arbutus for us! We make a clean sweep down the hillside "jumping" a rabbit from its form under a brush-pile, discovering where a partridge roosts in a low-spreading hemlock; coming upon a snail cemetery in a hollow hickory stump; turning up a yellow-jackets' nest built two thirds underground; tracing the tunnel of a bobtailed mouse in its purposeless windings in the leaf-mould, digging into a woodchuck's--

"But come, boys, get after those bags! It is leaves in the hay-rig we want, not woodchucks at the bottom of woodchuck-holes."

Two small boys catch up a bag, and hold it open, while two more stuff in the crackling leaves. Then I come along with my big feet, and pack the leaves in tight, and on to the rig goes the bulging bag.

Exciting? If you can't believe it exciting, hop up on the load, and let us jog you home. Swish! bang! thump! tip! turn! joggle! jolt! Hold on to your ribs. Pull in your popping eyes. Look out for the stump! Isn't it fun to go leafing? Is n't it fun to do anything that your heart does with you?--even though you do it for a pig!

Just watch the pig as we shake out the bags of leaves. See him caper, spin on his toes, shake himself, and curl his tail. That curl is his laugh. We double up and weep when we laugh hard; but the pig can't weep, and he can't double himself up; so he doubles up his tail. There is where his laugh comes off, curling and kinking in little spasms of pure pig joy.

"Boosh! Boosh!" he snorts, and darts around the pen like a whirlwind, scattering the leaves in forty ways, to stop short--the shortest stop!--and fall to rooting for acorns.

He was once a long-tusked boar of the forest, this snow-white, sawed-off, pug-nose little porker of mine--ages and ages ago. But he still remembers the smell of the forest leaves; he still knows the taste of the acorn-mast; he is still wild pig somewhere deep down within him.

And we were once long-haired, strong-limbed savages who roamed the forest for him--ages and ages ago. And we, too, like him, remember the smell of the fallen leaves, and the taste of the forest fruits, and of pig, _roast_ pig. And if the pig in his heart is still a wild boar, no less are we at times wild savages in our hearts.

Anyhow, for one day in the fall I want to go leafing. I want to give my pig a taste of acorns, and a big pile of leaves to dive so deep into that he cannot see his pen. No, I do not live in a pen; I do not want to; but surely I might, if once in a while I did not go leafing, did not escape now and then from my little penned-in, daily round into the wide, sweet woods, my ancestral home.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: Leafing