Springtime Is All About Decay

I know spring is supposed to be about new life and awakening and fresh youthful delight and whatnot, but mostly it makes me think about dead things.

I’m up at my parents, raking leaves. The leaves left on the lawn after the snow recedes are different from the first batch last fall. These are pounded into piles, worked into the old growth grass; we tease them out with a garden rake, like dandruff out of stringy hair. The leaves packed into the crevices in the yard are still wet between layers from the last snow; when peeled up, they reveal the grass beneath — bleach white, limp, starved for light. The wet leaves have started to decompose, and disturbing them (stabbing them with a metal rake) lets the scent of dried and poorly rejuvenated organic material starting to rot seep into the fresh air.

Ah, spring.

It’s warm now. My dad is re-converting the snow blower into a lawn mower as we scrape the leaves onto tarps and drag them into the woods. The leaf pile is growing — soon we have to crawl over and into the pile, clenching the corners of the bursting tarp. Our arms are starting to feel the work — or perhaps the heat of the sun boring into our shoulders.

A scrape into a wet crevice disturbs a toad. He won’t move out of my path, despite my prodding, and dead season or no, I don’t want to disembowel him with the tines of my rake. I work around him, leaving him glaring out between the tiny pile of leaves over his head. I strike up a conversation with him — it doesn’t seem so odd, here at home, here in the yard where I grew up.

“You’re going to get hurt if you don’t watch out,” I say. “I won’t be here in a few minutes, and my sister might not see you when she circles around.”

He does not say anything.

I start to think about a movie I saw once — one of all the trite stories about men who fall in love with women who have cancer. “I’m dying,” the woman reminds her husband, and he says, “Let’s not talk about that now.”

“You can’t avoid it,” she says. “It’s true. It’s what makes this, where we are now, worth it.”

I pause, for a minute, stretching my arms as my dad wanders over to my part of the back yard.

“There used to be so many more trees here,” he says. “You remember? And that storm took down all the ones in the front with the power lines when you were in high school.” He gestures to the clump of five the treehouse he built when we were kids is nestled into. “These — should have trimmed this bunch down to one when they were small, but I wanted to build the treehouse there. We’ll lose them all in the next couple years.”

The low-hanging starter branches on the climbing trees are gone now — some snapped by us as we grew older, some sawn off before we could do more damage. A few were taken out in storms. Some were just lost to old age, the wood growing weaker, bark brittle and thin. We walk to where the tree with the swing used to be — a towering Boxelder, cut down dying before it could choose which way to fall and crush the wood shop.

A clump of small branches with wrinkled, bright great leaves is shooting up out of the stump.

“New ones are growing!” I say.

“It’s a dirty tree,” he says dismissively. “It sheds. Litters. Drops debris all around it.”

I know he’ll save one shoot, see if it stretches to old heights.

And there are the lilacs — decimated a few years before, first by the weather, then by the lawn mower, then by the deer, who ravaged growth across the neighborhood. There’s a fence around them now, the way you shield something when you want it to grow.

Lilacs: if spring — fresh decaying season — ever had a saving grace, it would be lilacs. A person would do a lot for the promise of lilacs.

I walk by the lilacs in my neighborhood, here in Worthington. Purple and white, each bud tentatively uncoiling wet petals, straining toward blown open, unabashed — a new face to notice every time. Always different. And gone in two weeks, wilting into pale brown and folding into the soil.

The leaves we rake will be, too. My dad will shred them, eventually, and spread them across the lawn — maybe the garden? — and green things will sprint skyward like they’ve been given a shot of adrenaline, recycling their dead cousins into something new, something living. Something that we’ll have to rake up in a few seasons.

Still — a person would do a lot, for the promise of lilacs, even if they only last a few days.

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