Under Leaf – Looking Closely

By Corinne H. Smith

Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. ~ Thoreau, “Natural History of Massachusetts”

It’s still leaf-raking season out here in the suburbs. Every two weeks, the township truck comes through and inhales all of the leafy street-side hills we have carefully assembled. It’s magic. When we come home from the day’s work, the leaves are gone. The neighborhood is neat and clean again. Our bounty is on its way to the next county, where it will become compost. And yet: when you look at what’s still hanging in our trees, you know that this is a cycle that will need to be repeated. Over and over again.

I am a classic procrastinator. So I spent one recent chilly Sunday outside with my trusty hand-held rake, scraping furiously at the lawn to give up its colorful, curling, crumbling bits. No whiny, fossil-fuel-gobbling blower for me. No whirling dervishes of tornadic leaves. The Monday truck visit loomed large on the calendar, and I needed to put in some sweat equity. I couldn’t even SEE the grass, for all of the leaves — oak, sweet gum, Japanese maple, and several unknown others. And these were only from the trees in my own yard. Yellow litter from some sizable sugar maples rushed in from other spots up the street.

I worked around the football game broadcasts of the day. (I do have my priorities, after all.) And I sacrificed most of a late afternoon game to get back to the more-demanding task outside. Rake, rake, rake. Build those piles. As soon as the sun dropped below the horizon line, though, the air got downright arctic. I had to pull up my jacket zipper. Soon I had to turn on the outside lights to see what I was doing. I can tell you that there’s something quite tactile and sensory in the act of raking leaves in the dark.

The day's leaf-work awaits the truck.

The day’s leaf-work awaits the truck.

But before the darkness descended, I made a new discovery. Naturally as you rake, you pay close attention to the ground in front of you. Your goal is to see the grass, the ground, or the sidewalk again. You watch for these familiar sights. Well, as I was cleaning off one corner of the front yard, I was pleased to see it becoming all green again. Except that it wasn’t entirely green. Suddenly I saw several little yellow flowers that I had never seen before. In November?

A new flower - oxalis creeper

A new flower – oxalis creeper

This part of the lawn is made up mostly of violets, clover, and wild strawberries. I’m used to seeing little purple flowers, white flowers, and tiny red berries here in the spring and summer. This yellow one was something new. I dropped the rake and knelt down to take a closer look. I hardly took an “insect view” of the plain. I’d say it was more like one of a rabbit or a groundhog. But I got close enough to know that this plant was new to me. It had clover-like leaves, but not a clover-like flower. And it was vine-like, in its own tiny way. I pulled out a sample, took it inside, and put it in water to keep it fresh. Then I came back to the raking — now, with a fresh eye for what could be hiding beneath the leaves.

Later, as I watched the Sunday evening football game on TV – because again, I do have my priorities – I brought out all of my nature guidebooks. I wanted to identify this new yellow flower. But my favorite books let me down. All of them pointed instead to yellow wood sorrel, known as oxalis. I knew this plant. It had brighter and flatter green leaves, and it grew in a clump. It was even edible. No, I knew this new one was different.

The usual wood sorrel, without flower at this time of year

The usual wood sorrel, without flower at this time of year

Finally I picked up a guidebook I rarely use. I turned to the oxalis page, almost in futility. I hoped a picture nearby would match my sample. And there it was: CREEPING wood sorrel! “A creeping plant with smaller flowers and leaves than the preceding. … Usually found as a weed around greenhouses.” Well, mine grew next to the driveway. I’m glad to meet you and know you, creeping wood sorrel. I won’t soon forget you.

This week a brisk wind blew through the neighborhood, and once again I must rake in time to meet the Monday township truck. I wonder what new discovery I’ll make in this go-round? Surely, I’ll be giving the uncovered ground “the closest inspection.”

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