Raking Leaves, or What Threatens Civilization
Today, for the first time in my adulthood, I raked the yard. I had to go to the store and buy a rake, since, of course, I did not yet have one. And one of those long-necked red lighters for the brushpile, since my previous one, predictably, had been exhausted. I raked, my wife plopped leaves on the fire, the kids ran around wild with the neighbor children; then my wife raked, and I stoked the fire. It is a ritual that populates the earliest regions of my memory. If I try to recall what my life was like as a small child, the only images that return to me are my brother and I outside, with Dad in his overalls stoking a fire somewhere. To this day, if I swing by my folks’ house in the autumn there is a high probability that Dad will be out back with a fire.
As a child, you never understand why adults do the things adults do. You assume, naïvely, that they do things often on autopilot—perhaps because adults often seem as though they are operating on autopilot!—and that the reasons underneath things like raking the leaves or mowing the lawn or a multitude of other forms of yardwork are no deeper than yard-envy. “That bastard mowed his lawn this morning!” is probably one of my father’s quintessential proclamations, almost a declaration of war, raising the eternal strife that often characterizes sharing a boundary with one’s neighbor. It was also a statement of action which, in my teenage years, decided what my mid-morning or afternoon activity would be thereafter. What is yardwork beyond the games of social approbation? Why do we do it, I would wonder, if the only point is that one lawn looks better than the other?
That is, until this autumn—our first autumn at the house we purchased this past September. Looking out upon my backyard this past week, I saw nothing but a sea of leaves. There was not a spot in the yard where one could see where grass used to be. My first thought was for the grass, which surprised me at first. Even though the grass will naturally dry out in the late autumn into the winter, these leaves providing total ground cover would just obliterate my yard, leaving all kinds of hideous dead patches. I wondered to myself: what has happened to me that I care for grass? (We will come back to this question in a moment.) Some additional research revealed to us that fallen leaves provide nesting grounds for all kinds of potential pests, especially insects of various kinds, that use them as refuge from the oncoming winter.
Leaves, also, are a threat to civilization. I do not say this flippantly, to be clear, nor do I mean to say this in the manner in which so many a blowhard these days refers to the threats to our civilization. No, the culture wars, or identity politics, or what have you, are not threats to civilization, at least, not on the terms in which they are usually posed. But leaves are. And the trees are against us.
What is a yard covered in a sea of leaves if not the first step in producing a forest, after all? First, earlier in the season, the trees let loose their barrage of seed, in my case the spiky gumballs (that is the official term, as far as I can tell) of the American sweetgum tree. Then, in the autumn, they drop their leaves, serving as cover for potential saplings. The logic of their ambitious conquest is simple: create a layer of humus to nurture young trees, which, in turn, will create a greater canopy, then more humus, then more trees, and then . . . a forest. It is a long-term campaign the trees are waging against us, and they wage it against us constantly, each and every year, without fail, and with an eye for the long game. They do not grow weary in their efforts to overthrow human civilization.
On these terms, then, what is it to rake leaves but to fight back against the forces which seek to overrun civilization at every turn? Our politicos are severely mistaken when they identify anti-civilizational forces as those conflicts which occur chiefly through the terse exchange of language; no, civilization is a project waged more properly with a rake, a lawnmower, and a set of pruning shears. Should we be surprised that one of the earliest mythopoetic accounts of the establishment of civilization emerges from a narrative in which Gilgamesh, the god-king of Uruk, slays Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, conquering the very trees themselves?
The Politics of Yardwork
This brings me, then, back to my earlier question: why do I all of a sudden care about my yard? What is it about this particular patch of grass, parceled out and listed under my name, that causes me to desire to wage war against a force so ancient and beyond my reckoning, to prevent the forestification of this little plot of land? Or, perhaps more seriously, why had I never cared before? Why had I never noticed or paid attention to all the little ways in which we tend to our yards? When I would hurry across the campus for my graduate studies, I would often see various groundskeepers doing their labor hither and thither: mowing the lawns, tending the plants, repotting and replanting. In my mind, I had always categorized these things as primarily æsthetic: a pretty, well-maintained school can better attract more students, after all. Yet here too there is always a threat of wilderness reclamation, where the ivies covering the stone walls threaten to make a school that always thinks of itself as an “Ivy League” into one of a different kind altogether.
The answer is not surprising, in fact, after all this reflection it is almost embarrassingly simple, banal even. I care about this yard because it is my yard, and I have never owned a yard before.
Like most folks in the millennial cohort, and for many more still in the Gen-Z cohort to come, my twenties were spent on-the-move. My wife and I counted once, and between the year we got married and the year we bought this house, we have lived in nine different locations. I am now an extremely confident U-Haul driver, she is now a master cardboard-box-smith. Our eldest and youngest children were both born in Chicago within a couple blocks of each other, and our middle child, wildly enough, was born in south-central rural Illinois. All of that time in which we have been traveling from degree to job to degree, trying to figure our lives out, we have been renting. And we would still be renting if it weren’t for COVID relief funds that we were able to store away for a down payment.
Homeownership, in short, is a category of existence that remains elusive for the vast majority of American young adults. I use the term “existence” here because describing homeownership as merely a matter of wealth accumulation (as the economists tend to do) or as merely a matter of establishing social status (as the sociologists tend to do) does not fully capture the transformation of mind and identity that occurs with it. To own a home is to have a vested interest in a certain amount of square-footage on this earth. Whatever politics we may endorse, none of them are of much use unless people have a sense of what they politic for: what do we mean when we say “my community,” “my neighborhood,” and so on? This is not to discredit the viability of politics amidst communities of renters—and many a political movement has been sustained with a lively sense of community in spite of the forced precarity of those who comprised it!—but we should reflect about the differences between the politics of a rental society compared to the politics of homeownership.
Where I experience that difference the most is in my yard. Prior to owning a home, I had never once attended to the mowed-status of others’ lawns, as my father did, but now, albeit not nearly with his same fervor, whenever the neighbors mow their lawns I think “gosh, now I need to mow too.” This is peer pressure in its most basic form, and we should not receive it uncritically—no good ethics or politics emerges from pure “I see what they’re doing, I want to do it too”—and, yet, that system of pressure encourages a participation in a shared project that keeps the neighborhood as a whole well-kept and lovely. (And free from vermin, and so on.)
And a yard is more than merely a locus for peer pressure: it is a space wherein the householder can enact change upon the world (“home improvement”), host their communities (bonfires and soirées), share spaces with the neighbors (and the neighbors’ kids). It is a space where each and every household must race against the trees to either continue the project of civilization or submit and let nature take its course. The good news, in that last bit, is that the trees, while patient, are very slow.
If Marx’s critique of history is that things which are solid “melt into the air,” perhaps we ought to be mindful of the historical-economic forces that cause solid things to melt. If rugged American individualism has reached an apex which aggrandizes the self within the social whole, regardless of sectarian affiliation, then it behooves us to identify what experiences we lack that prevent us from co-identification with each other in the shared project of civilization. After all, trees are not the only natural force that fights against the existence of civil society; all civilizations experience within themselves an inevitable sense of entropy that tugs against all ethics, all civility, all visions of common good. In this sense, the futurists who have suggested a radical end to homeownership and the embrace of the rental economy in fact are proposing the end of politics, in all of its good, generative, communal senses.
Or, to return to my original theme, if to rake leaves is to build civilization, to guard it from the natural forces that, if left alone, will inevitably unwork its structures and institutions, then we should read any force that gets in the way of this communal ritual as anti-social in its essence. Regardless of whether these obstacles come from novel forms for liquidizing real assets and brutal housing markets or stagnant economic prospects that demand young adults build cross-country resumes. Simone Weil writes that “the soul feels isolated, lost, if it is not surrounded by objects which seem to it like an extension of the bodily members.” It is a part of the pedagogy of being human to be vested in one’s commitment to a thing that is one’s own, as though it were a part of one’s own body. And, in this vested commitment, to find it fulfilled in one’s relationship with others beyond mere convenience alone.
Simone Weil, “The Needs of the Soul.” In ed. Siân Miles, Simone Weil: An Anthology, p. 115. ↩︎
Ian Edward Caveny is a high school English teacher in the St. Louis region and a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School. He writes at The Poet in Babylon. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.