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In the late Autumn, when the girls were little, we used to pay them a nickel for every falling leaf they could catch, before it hit the ground. This led to all kinds of fun as they intently ran around through our deeply wooded back yard, grasping and leaping towards the swirling dried oak leaves. Dozens and dozens of leaves would spin right toward them, and then at the last moment, deviously lurch just out of reach, before cascading to the ground creating a carpet so thick, we’d literally have to wade through it. An afternoon of this silly fun typically cost us very little, because it’s really hard to catch a falling leaf.

NigelLeavesAfterward, we would rake the leaves into huge piles, many feet tall, and they would take flying leaps, or Bruce would toss them in, completely burying themselves in the crunching mass, arms and legs sticking out in every direction. After a great amount of rolling and rustling about, they’d finally emerge, broken leaves stuck all over them, head to foot. Our cat Nigel, young at the time, always fell prey to escapades with leaves, repeatedly being tossed into the pile, where he would scamper about and then emerge at a full run across the yard, leaves clinging to his long fur, only to return for more of the same. What great fun.

Finally, we’d begin the task of raking the huge piles onto the fire pit in the back yard, carefully working the barrier with rakes while we set them aflame, creating a crackling volcano of smoke and fire. What is it about the hypnotic lure of this great seasonal tradition? I absolutely love the smell of burning leaves.

We did accidentally set our woods on fire once years ago during our kitchen remodel, when Bruce put out some large boxes to burn in a barrel while our ovens were being installed. One of the crew came in and said, “I assume you mean for your woods out back to be on fire?” Holy Crap! Out we all ran with rakes, including our general contractor, and it took us nearly an hour to contain the giant circle of scorched leaves amidst the trees. We used to have brambles of blackberries back there, but that pretty much took care of those. Fortunately, that was the extent of the damage, and the end of our use of a burn barrel.

NigelWoodsOur redwood sided house sits amidst six acres of thick forest, under waving, towering oak trees at least sixty feet tall. For a long time, we used a walking trail Bruce created through the first three acres, and when we acquired three more acres to the east, we extended the trail. We’d walk it early mornings with Nigel trailing along, distractedly letting us get too far ahead, such that he would pretend he was lost, and yowl imploringly for us. So we’d stop and call out to him, only to have him come flying toward us, blazing through the wild brush underfoot, until he rapidly caught up, only to get distracted again by some buzzing only he could hear.

We haven’t used the trail much since I had ACL Reconstruction on my left knee in 2010. The path is a bit rough, with hidden tree roots, uneven earth and vines ready to grab at any moment. A couple of years ago, we heard target practice coming from the house three acres away. This wasn’t the first time those neighbors had decided to shoot toward our woods, and we’d advised them we walk through there. Bruce found their name in the phone book, and called to ask what they were shooting with, and she said, “Oh, it’s just a potato gun”. I recall a New Year’s party a long time ago with people catapulting potatoes through the air, which baffled me, but a potato gun was a new one on me! So Bruce asked if it had bullets, and she said yes. What potatoes have to do with that, I don’t know, but he told her to stop shooting into our woods because we walk there.

This last spring, we once again heard the shooting, so this time I called her up and asked if they were shooting at our woods again. “No”, she replied testily, “we’re shooting towards Margaret’s”. I have no clue who Margaret is, but I’m wondering, does Margaret know she’s being shot at?! This is what we get for living in the county. So we finished our hasty discourse with additional warnings that we walk through our woods that border their land. We’re considering refurbishing our trail, this time clearing roots and layering a nice gravel path for stability. But I do wonder if I’ll need to keep a sidearm on me.

IMG_2481And so, all the leaves are brown and the falling has commenced in our forest once again. We arrived home in time for a couple of days of color as the large oak leaves turned a brownish red, at times scarlet when over-lit by the sun, the strong trees backed by yellow underbrush and colorful red Virginia Creeper clambering high into the branches. Last year, we planted two sugar maples to add more color. They are a marvel when they mature, a cacophony of green, yellow, orange and red all in one glorious tree. The Japanese maple is stunning in a rich crimson red.

When the big winds come, usually over a couple of days, the leaves cascade down in droves, a constant progression, until the trees empty their arms for the season. It’s beautiful to watch, but comes with a sad melancholy this year as we mourn Nigel not sharing this with us, his trampoline now heaped in brown leaves. We know, in time, the memories we share of him will replace the sadness, but for now, in my favorite season, this Falling is difficult.

Nigel was the great equalizer in our family. Through thick and thin, good times and bad, for better or for worse, he remained neutral, loving us each equally, and in turn, equally loved and adored by each of us. You could have had the worst day ever, and there would be that silly little face, expressionless, and adorable, lifting your spirits just by looking at him.

He would lap dance around the room, relocating himself to his advantage, based on who was the most interesting at any time, as a quiet competition ensued amongst us. If Heather was in the chair knitting, he’d be with her, patiently waiting until she cut off a long strand of yarn for him. Sometimes, he would literally just lay across her legs on the ottoman, and watch her knit.

NigelBruceHannah would keep him running back and forth and back and forth, sending his rolly balls in all directions as he chased about like the wind.

Bruce would get his attention in the evenings when it was time to stretch out long across his body, both taking in a good snooze.

And me, well, wherever I would go, he would usually follow, because we had an unbreakable bond. A card arrived today from Debbie and Lori, which stated correctly that even soul-mates can have tails.

Next week we head out for the second and last leg of our sabbatical, a month in New Zealand, in the land of Mordor, where Orcs roam the hillsides, where the Misty Mountains tower in majesty to the south, and where Frodo and Sam will save us from the One Ring in the Fires of Mount Doom. We will seek out the Light of Earendil, a most beloved star, and a light in dark places when all other lights go out.

For as The Lady of the Wood, Galadriel of Lothlorien whispers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Go now and rest, for you are weary with sorrow and much toil. Tonight you will sleep in peace.”

Lorie McMillin, Rolla, MO, November, 2013