The great migration of the leaves has begun now, as they make their way steadily from their summer homes in the trees, to their deathbed on the forest floor. If the wind takes them, they tumble in droves in a lilting spiral dance. When the forest is still, the leaves come down singly, bumping branches and leaf neighbors on their journey. But whichever way they come, down is the inevitable direction.
When the wind is fierce, whole tree limbs—sometimes even trees themselves— crash to the forest floor and explode into shards of worm-bored decay. Twigs are always making their way to the forest floor, but I seldom see them on their downward travels. They are not as showy as the leaves, nor as noisy as the trees and branches.
Now and again in my forest wanderings, I’ll stumble upon the ripe, melting body of a bird, a turtle, a deer, or squirrel. In summer, my nose finds them first. In autumn, they blend with the color of the fallen leaves, all amber, gray, gold, brown, and scarlet.
Each autumn, I marvel again at the seasonal spectacle of the forest receiving and celebrating her dead, her offal, her decay. The concept of trash, of garbage, finds no place here. Such things are man-made. Here on the forest floor, everything is welcome with open arms, with instant activity, and with purifying purpose…
Squirrels open the green, spongy covering on the black walnuts, and make off with the nuts, leaving the remains behind where moisture and bugs nibble them down to a rich, porous compost. Leaves begin crumbling almost immediately into little puzzle pieces of color and texture. I swear, you can almost hear the forest humming a happy song as she does her magic, crafting leaves into rich loam where new plants will thrive and seed and die back.
The rib bones of fallen animals quickly settle into white and silver half-moons on the forest bed, some of them providing calcium-rich nibbling stations for countless small animals, until the bones themselves melt into the ground, pouring out their rich mineral stores like a baptism to the ground.
I step on an old branch, and it crumbles under my feet, sending its nutrients back home. The forest plant-carpet yellows, and I know that when I sift my fingers through the meadow bottom next spring, not a trace of vine or twig will remain. All I will feel is spongy, moist earth, black with promise. And I will find my hope and courage there in the yearly, enduring transformation from autumn to spring of decay to fertility.
I don’t know why we humans can’t make more of our discards. Why we can’t get past a trash mentality. Why we make pits for our garbage that never become places of beauty or fertility ever again. I’m trying hard in my own tiny universe to follow the teachings of Earth Mother as she celebrates the glory of waste and decay.
I snip my dying vegetable plants back into small chunks, and leave them there on the garden beds where I know they will be embraced and enfolded by insects, mycelium, and mystery. Whatever is still edible goes into the freezer, the stew pot, or the big yellow stock pot I simmer up every few weeks when the bag of clippings and parings is stuffed full. Dandelions, plantain, wild onions, squash trimmings all get simmered down to a mineral-rich stock, and I spread the boiled remains on the garden beds.
Cookie the possum produces a lovely “latrine” full of omnivore poop each day, which I pour onto our ginkgo and maple trees off the back deck. Mushrooms sprout up happily in the places where the decay and slime goodies are placed.
Old rags, clothes, and paper waste become garden path liners, compost heap residents, or get carried down to the huge wildlife brush pile whose size rises and ebbs with the seasons. We have worms EVERYWHERE.
In meditative moments, I consider the things that have died in my life, the plans that went nowhere but to decay. The relationships that fell to the ground with a splat. All these many events and doings and not-doings that crumbled to rot and dust and stink. Some of these dead things had their life span, and died naturally. Some, I inadvertently killed through neglect. There are things that were fertile inside me that I killed with neglect.
Today, I will pretend that I am the forest floor, and I will reach up and gladly receive all the death and decay in my inner universe and enfold it and embrace it. Perhaps by springtime—if I forgive myself fully enough and if I love myself just enough—I will, by the grace of mystery, have made some good soil of it all.