The Masterpiece in the Leaf Pile

I’m a big fan of crafts that begin with dead leaves, especially if the leaves come from my yard. (Special note to the Lincoln Community School and Martha Stewart: My leaves are your leaves. Take whatever you want.) It’s amazing what some artists can do with a dead leaf, an iron and a little wax paper, particularly if the artists are 5 years old and there’s a grown-up present to make sure the kids don’t iron their hands. The effect is, I’m pretty sure, what Henri Matisse was always trying to achieve, but never quite succeeded in doing.

Now that my lawn is awash in leaves, I asked readers for their favorite autumn craft stories. Here are some of their responses.

Jen Marshall McVey: “Last fall, I collected a ton of acorns with my three young children. We then set orange, green and yellow pillar candles on paper plates and glued the acorns around the base of the candles to make a centerpiece for the table. Then we sprinkled gold glitter on the acorns. It looked great for a few days. Then one morning at breakfast, I noticed something moving amid the acorns. I looked closely, and maggots had hatched out of them: literally hundreds of fat, squirming maggots. This was at the breakfast table. But the funny thing was that, if I thought the kids were excited about the acorns before, the addition of hundreds of maggots made those acorns a thousand times more attractive.”

Caroline Leavitt: “When I was 10, I was supposed to collect leaves for a project, which I did, and I put them in a box. I saw a big twig and picked it up, wanting to snap it in two, and then it started crawling up my arm. It was a walking stick — a huge walking stick! I screamed and refused to do the project. I wouldn’t go in the backyard for weeks. I’ve been anxious around piles of leaves ever since.”

Shelley Dimick: “When my daughter was 5, she made a lampshade for the living room to match our lovely wax paper leaves in the window. It was quite a sight: dried leaves, birch bark, bits of twigs all stuck on to a canvas shade. Her father, not understanding the nature of birch bark and glue, left the light on. There were no flames, but it really smoked up the house.”

Amena Smith: “Once the doctor gave my husband some Prednisone (a corticosteroid) for an asthma reaction, and he got a little manic. He went into the yard and collected leaves, twigs, acorns and pine cones. He glued them on to centerpieces and sprayed them gold. How many centerpieces did he make? Thirty. Yup, 30. We have two tables.”

Trish Turner-Gill: “When I was 9 years old, I burned myself and wrecked my mom’s iron when I mistakenly heat-pressed a living inchworm among the leaves. My older brother found it hysterically funny. Good times.”

Lana Wilder: “I made spectacular mosaic pieces by gluing macaroni on cardboard and then spray-painting it a lovely metallic gold! I also saturated string with Elmer’s glue, wrapped it around an inflated balloon, let the string dry and then popped the balloon. What the resulting string sculpture was supposed to be, I don’t know.”

Tamara Wettermann: “I had a patient who had watched a Martha Stewart episode where she took wild grapevines, hung them around her windows, and then threaded twinkle lights in them. So, my patient went into a field where she had seen vines growing along a fence, and spent hours hanging and twisting them to get ‘just the right look.’ Then she spent the next couple hours at my office getting an IV steroid infusion and breathing treatments, followed by a week or two of oral steroids, skin treatments and a Benadryl stupor. Yes, it was poison ivy.” (Wettermann is a physician and added that someday she will put together a collection of patient stories titled “Tattoos I Have Seen.” The sequel? “What Were You Thinking?”)

So, this month, be sure to indulge your inner Matisse. Just keep your eyes out for walking sticks, maggots and poison ivy.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 26, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.