THE WASTED OAK LEAF
"A PILE of newspapers and this bag of rags to be gotten rid of!" remarked Barbara's mother as she dumped them down on the back porch, where Barbara was working. It was fall house-cleaning time, and Barbara was busily wiping with a damp cloth the glasses of the framed pictures from the walls. On the lawn outside, the October sun shone brightly, and a flock of blackbirds picked among the leaves scattered on the grass.
"Mother, can't I take the newspapers out in the garden and make a bonfire with them? I've nearly finished cleaning the pictures," Barbara asked, adding longingly, " I'll be careful. I do so love to burn things."
Mother shook her head. "I don't want them burned. I give them to the Salvation Army man. He sells them to people whose business it is to make brand new paper out of the pulp of old newspapers. Rags are used in the same way. It would be very wasteful to burn them."
"Oh, dear, I wish I could this once! Lots of things are wasted all the time! Just look at all the dead leaves flying around, wasted." A little whirlwind danced past, flinging a few brown leaves at Barbara's feet. Her voice sounded very whiny, for, to tell the truth, she was tired of bending over the pictures and felt a trifle cross.
Mother looked at her little daughter in surprise.
"Put the cloth away now, dear," she said. "Run out in the woods and see whether or not the leaves are wasted. Maybe you'll find they are made over just like the newspapers."
As Barbara waded through a pile of crackling leaven that the wind had drifted in by the porch steps, and raced across the grass into the woods, she felt quite cheerful again. The woods seemed light and airy, with the branches half bare and every breeze shaking down a shower of gold and brown. She stood still to watch a chipmunk scamper across the path in front of her, his little brush of a tail curled over his back and his cheeks bulging with nuts. A large, leathery oak leaf, turning slowly round and round as it fell, almost touched Barbara's nose. It settled lightly at her feet with a rustle that sounded very much like a sigh. Barbara leaned over in time to hear a tiny voice say:
"You didn't quite hit it, did you!"
The thin, dry voice of the Oak Leaf answered: "No, that little girl was in the way. Oh, well the West Wind will move me again."
Barbara jumped to one side, for she hated to be in the way. Then her curiosity overcame her, and she returned to the Oak Leaf.
"Where were you trying to go?" she asked.
"I hoped I would strike the clump of ferns you are almost walking on," it replied. "We have to look out for it it's rather tender, and last winter suffered with the cold. All of us on my branch agreed we would be specially careful to cover it well this year."
Before Barbara could answer, a round little voice piped up from across the path:
"I don't want to interfere with Maidenhair Fern, but please don't forget me." Barbara saw a tuft of the queer-shaped, green leaves of the Hepatica, that grows among the rocks and blooms early in the spring, tremble slightly. "I thought the Beech would send me a covering, but so far' not a beech leaf has come near me," the Hepatica went on.
Barbara was astonished, and was just about to ask a question, when a spray of yellow Goldenrod spoke up:
"You're all foolish to worry so soon about your winter blankets. You know perfectly well that the West Wind is going to mix the leaves all up anyway, and whirl them here and there. By the time the Freeze comes, you'll all be covered."
"Tell me," Barbara interrupted eagerly, "do the leaves off the trees really have to keep the plants protected from cold? I thought in the fall leaves just died and fell down to the ground."
"'Just died and fell down!' listen to the child!" scoffed the Oak Leaf. "Much she knows! There is no such thing as 'just dying' in the woods. First, while we're on the branches, we make green food for the trees out of sunlight and rain; then we cover the ground to keep Jack Frost from running in and out in winter, splitting the earth and tearing the roots of the plants. Thick and soft we cover the ground." The Oak Leaf nestled closer into a hollow.
"And then what happens to you?" Barbara questioned.
The Goldenrod plume stirred, as a late bee settled on it "Let her look and see for herself what becomes of the leaves," it advised.
"Look under me" "And me" "And me," rustled a dozen voices.
Barbara gathered up a double handful of the loosely scattered crisp oak leaves and laid them gently on the clump of Maidenhair Fern. Below where they had been, she found a mass of damp leaves closely packed together, some oak, some beech, some maple. She discovered when she tried to lift them that they stuck closely together and tore easily when separated. A little red salamander crawled hastily under a stone, and several flat beetles and worms with many legs scuttled away.
"Dig deeper," the Goldenrod directed, when Barbara hesitated. She found a stick and turned up the mat of wet leaves. Below it lay a mixture of black earth and what looked like skeletons of leaves, with only the veins and stems left. This layer was filled with tiny roots, and was damp and cool. Barbara thought it looked like the soil Mother always brought from the woods to fill the pots of her beautiful house ferns. She scratched deeper with her stick, turning up only fine, rich dirt, with no trace of leaves. Then the stick struck a stone and she could dig no further.
"Well," said the Oak Leaf from its new bed on the Maidenhair Fern, "do you see now what becomes of us? 'Just died,' indeed! That black earth is the finest plant food in the world better than all the fertilizer your father buys in bags! Three years from now I'll be feeding the roots of trees and goldenrod and ferns, myself. Because I feed them, they will grow new leaves, which in turn will fall and rot and Let me tell you, little girl, we don't waste even leaves, in the woods."