Where do the leaves go? This one thought always occurs to me as I hike down into the gorge along the trail from Kitchens Lane. No exception this morning, as I crunched through the skim ice from the weekend’s melting and re-freezing of a few inches of snow. Where do the leaves go? Oh, I know that organisms in the soil on the forest floor, from worms to microbes do their thing after a time, but nobody is standing around watching that happen. In fact, nobody is standing around watching leaves on the ground anywhere, except maybe the front lawn, just before you get the blower out and sometime after the notice to do so from the town was received. So, I think there are likely other forces at work here.
I am almost to the bridge over the creek by the time I conclude that A) there must be a more whimsical explanation to the legend of the leaves, and B) my decision to don hip boots in the 20 degree January chill could be described by several words other than whimsical. But I slide my way over the bridge, using a large Red Maple to halt my forward progress on the side of the creek I had come to fish. As I braced against the ancient trunk, I looked down at the leaves radiating out from the base around the tree. They haven’t taken these ones yet. What? Who hasn’t taken them? Whimsy welled up mightily, but I was after all here to fish, so down along the trail to the stone beach at Devil’s pool I slid.
Now from ten feet away from the bank, I could cast across the creek, bouncing my jig off the massive outcroppings of Wissahickon schist. But hip boots on, I entered the stream, stirring up puffs of silt that would fleck my boots with silvery slivers of local geology. In fact, the rock is so prevalent, and sheds its flakes like my tabby sheds hair, that bits of it are similarly found downstream in the Schuylkill River as far as the Art Museum. Within the few minutes that it takes for my feet to begin to turn too stone as well in the frigid creek, two things happen. First, and most welcome, a fifteen inch rainbow trout grabs my Trout Magnet, aptly named in this case, and cartwheels a few times before I draw it into the shallows at my frozen feet. He rests on my downstream side, quietly finning over the cobbles of schist in the streambed. Since I am standing knee deep in the water, I simply reach down and twist the barbless jig out of the corner of his mouth, and he heads back to the other side of the pool. I sheepishly admit to myself what a good idea it was to be wearing my hip boots, so as to facilitate the smooth release of my trout.
Ah yes, the second thing. While the above scenario played out, an idea began to form concerning the leaves. They were taken, for purposes unknown, by some thing. It seemed most certain. As the afternoon walk in the woods/water continued (fishless from this point on), the thing started to take shape, and acquire a population. The graphic display of denuded trees, their leafy vestments long since fall foliage and fallen, provided little hiding space for any gigantic mega leaf gobbler, so rule that out. But, along with scattered evergreen shrubs, the woody, schisty landscape could conceal a legion of smaller Lords of the Leaves. Pixieish, Hobbit-like sprites that take advantage of eyes that eschew only the verdant greens of spring and the brilliant blaze of fall, appreciating only the arboreal leaves. Once fallen out of the branches and out of our sight, the Gnomes of the Gorge do their thing.
A tap on my lure as it begins its cross-current swing elicits a reaction from me, too slow, too ice impeded, to be awarded with a hook-up. More than satisfied with the days single trout and the stark beauty of the winter woods, I reel in and wade across the creek to the trail rather than slide across the bridge again. A leaf, boxelder I think, floats past me downstream. By the time I am half way out of the gorge, my feet have begun to thaw, and I notice that I am tired, but tired in that good way an afternoon outdoors in winter makes you. And I begin to think about the leaves again. Not the mystery of where they go, I’ve solved that one to my satisfaction. Now I’m beginning to wonder what use the Lords of the Leaves might make of their bounty from the forest floor. Well, that will have to wait until another day afield, my whimsy has been superseded by hunger, and a cheesesteak from Larry’s sounds about right. This is after all, Philadelphia.