The air was still cold and crisp as the morning sun hadn’t emerged enough to cut through the low clouds. The leaves along the trail had frosted overnight, evidenced by the curled edges that loudly crunched under my boots. I repeatedly took deep breaths trying to inhale as much of the fall as I could. I could smell the smoke from a fireplace in the distance, mixing with the natural background aroma of the seasonal vegetation and leaf debris. My smile grew and expanded as I looked down the hillside to the river. The water was low and crystal clear. From the perspective high on the trail, the stream looked like a moving aquarium. I can see the large boulders and log jams collecting leaves like nature’s rakes. Each exposed rock which two weeks ago formed a challenging path to hop across the river are now hidden, at least on the upstream side, with stacked leaves of yellow, orange, red and brown and many iterations in between.
I took my time to make my way down the steep hillside to the stream. As my boots touched the edge of the water, I realized fishing today will be difficult. The clarity of the water and low flow would reduce my ability to approach and camouflage myself in pursuit of catching trout. I will need to move slower, with more intention, and cast delicately to fool some trout today.
My casting feels rusty, or maybe my body is just feeling old, cold, and stiff. It takes me the first fifteen minutes or so to get in a rhythm and get a sense of control over the accuracy of my casts. I run the many lessons learned and tips of advice through my head for maintaining a good drag-free drift through the zone. Normally, movement or strikes from fallfish will give immediate feedback on how I’m managing my drifts. This morning, I was catching lots of leaves and no fish.
The leaves garnered my attention for the next 30 minutes. Where could I fish and not get hung up? I began to think about the biology of the accumulation of leaves in streams. Leaves provide significant amounts of biological energy to stream systems. They are fuel, or primary production, that feed the aquatic life of streams. Organic matter that enters a stream from the adjacent riparian area or nearby uplands is referred to as allochthonous inputs. Besides a fantastic SAT word, allochthonous inputs are vital to the health of the stream. Macroinvertebrates eat and help break down leaves and other coarse particulate organic material (CPOM). The aquatic insects have specialized their feeding styles to fill different ecological niches including shredders, collectors, grazers, and predators. Shredders eat and abrade the leaves into smaller pieces that can then be collected by insects that have adapted to smaller food sources.
I was beginning to transform my annoyance at catching the leaves to an appreciation that the leaves were in the stream, keeping the circle of the ecosystem moving ahead with time and seasonal changes. The leaves catch energy from the sun to feed the trees and then fall to the ground, or to the water, to feed the soil or the water. That is pretty cool. Accumulations of leaves are vital to the health of our stream ecosystems as a constant source of food. My perspective changed and my annoyance was gone.
I thought about what aspects of my life were like the leaves, a constant source of energy. What was I collecting on the rocks of my life and what did I give to the world to help nourish others? I thought of the ideas that built and helped me create things. I thought of comments people have made to me that built me up or cut me down. Things I’ve accumulated that provide energy, positive, negative, or otherwise. What were the leaves that I have dropped for others? A small rock can catch one leaf and another until it deflects water and abstracts flow. Eventually insects or storms can help dislodge or break down the accumulations. But the buildup of energy has an impact.
Eventually I caught a fish, and it broke my mind of the philosophical loop I was stuck in. The smell of the distant fireplace brought me back to appreciating the season and my setting. I was grateful for the practical brilliance of nature and how each input connects and continues the system. The leaves also gave me a renewed focus on what energy I absorb and give to others. How can I use my energy to build myself and help sustain those around me?