Celebrating The Dying Year
As a kid, I felt the powerful pull of autumn as a call to adventure. Hearing honking geese overhead, watching their tidy Vs arrowing through the sky, I yearned to join their purposeful travels into distant lands and lonely places. New England’s luxurious heaps and sweeps of tumbling leaves were also enchanting, as transforming of the local landscape as snowfall and intoxicatingly colorful. I tried to save the brightest ones, flaming maple or golden birch, only to find them faded and curling overnight. The very evanescence of those extraordinary colors was part of the charm, like fairy gold that vanishes overnight.
Having read and re-read Mary Norton’s Borrowers books, I also loved making little houses for little people, indoors and out. In summer, I’d weave small rugs and blankets of soft grasses and long, slender leaves, make cradles from cracked nutshells, and model tiny dishes from the raw clay along the riverbank. In more recent years, I’ve invited children to create similar fantasy homes for littles at our local library, where I’ve been gardening with the Friday Tidy volunteers for over 20 years now. This fall, I’ve fallen in love with the idea of creating a nature-based ofrenda and spent many happy hours arranging leaves in patchwork and path edgings. The activity is deeply soothing and the result is both lovely and cheerful.
A Natural Offering
As autumn slides toward winter, many cultures celebrate seasonal change. While some countries mark All Saints and All Souls days with Halloween, a Mexican tradition instead offers artful, beautifully decorated displays that commemorate family and friends who have passed away. Many are created with natural materials, including flowers and foliage as well as candles, photographs, paintings and other memorabilia to joyfully recall dear ones to mind. This year, the Friday Tidy is decorating the library gardens with an outdoor ofrenda that celebrates the passing of all that has been left behind this year. We’re being assisted by Araceli Cruz, the artist who assembles the spectacular ofrenda at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art each year. Using natural materials from the gardens, we’re making our homage to the passing seasons. We hope when visitors pass through the garden, they might be moved to add a flower, a leaf, or a seedpod as well.
We began along a secondary garden path, where empty bays between shrubs seem to invite decoration. We set the stage with a pair of large branches an arborist had trimmed from a lovely but terminally diseased Japanese maple. Covered with lichens and mosses, the branches could not be not allowed into the art museum (where insects are not encouraged), but their very communal liveliness makes them perfectly at home in the garden. Sheltering under tall firs, the stout branches rise like the wings of a stage, framing our main display. Our initial offering was an array of oyster shells, gift of a wanderer who enjoyed a meal and left the remains beneath a tree. We added bundles of crocosmia stalks, bound with long leaves or knots of spangled seedhead stalks from my favorite pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana).
Nature Accepts The Offer
When I stopped by a few days later to add bunches of oregano blossoms, I found the crocosmia bundles untied and scattered. At first I suspected human agency until I noticed a grey squirrel racing through the garden. It had what looked like bright yellow ribbons dangling from its mouth, but they were actually ripe daylily foliage that had held several bundles together. I’m sure they’ll make a lovely, soft blanket for a winter hideaway; though grey squirrels don’t actually hibernate, they do spend a lot of time snuggling in their nests during the coldest months.
This week we added a delightful garland of leaves that Ariceli gathered when she walked her dog in the morning. She took a bright bagful home and sewed them together with a sharp needle and coarse thread (very fine twine would work too), taking one wide stitch through each leaf so they lie flat against the string. The cool, rainy weather has kept the colors vivid so far, but I’m also experimenting with an old technique I recalled from childhood. I’m pressing colorful leaves dry between newspapers, then ironing them between two sheets of waxed paper. I’m pretty sure I wrecked an iron or two with something similar involving melted crayons way back when, so this time I’m using a sheet of packing paper on top to keep from getting wax all over the bottom of the iron. Right?
Pathway To Heaven
I’ll try cutting out the leaves and stringing them on fine wire or maybe fishing line to dangle from nearby branches. Hopefully the waxy coating will keep the colors bold for a few weeks, but even if they fade, that seems suitable in view of the theme of decay and decline. I’m also entertaining myself mightily by weaving a tapestry of foliage along the display area. This week, I’ll extend the foliage to follow the path in both directions. I can imagine this as an annual event involving kids and others who might enjoy weaving bright ribbons of leaves throughout the entire garden on both sides of every path.
It also seems like a lovely way for kids to learn to recognize the various shapes and sizes of leaves from all sorts of plants. Plant ID can be tedious as book learning but endlessly fascinating in a natural context. I imagine kids would enjoy gathering lovely leaves, seeking out the brightest in an autumnal version of an Easter egg hunt. Using them to decorate their own garden paths might be equally entertaining and very beautiful to boot. If we only protect what we love, immersing kids in nature and encouraging them to see beauty everywhere seems like a good way to ensure ongoing love for the natural and a lifelong commitment to ecological protection as a visceral rather than intellectual cause.