Each autumn, our streets are dominated by the driving of cars and the great purging of leaves from the Princeton landscape. Highly visible and often noisy, these two activities have consequences that are silent and hidden. The less we drive cars, the fewer invisible global warming gases rise into the atmosphere. The fewer leaves blown into the streets, the less invisible expense to carry them away.
But how does one model more beneficial behaviors? If I avoid running an unnecessary errand, no one sees me not driving the car. If I pile my leaves in the backyard rather than in the streets, neighbors won’t emulate an approach they cannot see.
In addition, there are many fears and rumors associated with keeping leaves on one’s property. Will a pile of leaves attract rats, create odors, catch fire from the heat of decomposition, suffocate the tree roots underneath, or fail to decompose? In my experience, none of these fears are justified. Piled leaves settle and decompose, untended, and within a year produce excellent compost that, if not harvested, will be eagerly gobbled up by invading tree roots.
Leaves are nature’s mulch. They keep the ground cool and moist in summer. Birds search underneath them for food. Fireflies lay their eggs under leaves. “Cleaning” a yard of leaves means cleaning the neighborhood of birds and fireflies.
This year, I have sought to make the invisible visible. To assess best practices, I urged our town officials to document all the costs associated with cleaning up the year-round piling of leaves, yardwaste and brush in the streets. I suggested we demonstrate “leave the leaves” management in the local parks, by mowing leaves back into the turf, and have demonstration leaf corrals homeowners could emulate in their own yards.
Then I realized that, living on a busy street, I could model beneficial behavior right at home. There are now several leaf corrals in my front yard on North Harrison Street. Hidden behind shrubs or out in the open, they easily accommodated all the leaves raked up from the lawn. The one close to the sidewalk is about the size and shape of a wishing well, and if you think about it, a leaf corral is like a well in reverse. A well gives us an ongoing supply of cool, clean water from the giving earth. A leaf corral represents a giving back, a means of steadily feeding nutrients back into the ground from which they came.
To help make visible another hidden, but highly positive legacy, that of Princeton’s visionary mathematician and open space pioneer, Oswald Veblen, I am offering to sell and help install at cost a leaf corral in the yard of anyone who makes a donation of any size to the Friends of Herrontown Woods, the nonprofit working to rehabilitate the historic house and cottage that the Veblens donated long ago to the public trust. This project, too, represents a giving back, to a quiet legacy that so influenced the Princeton we know and love.