When we built our house on this back corner of the neighborhood, we told the builders to leave as many trees as possible because the line of woods at the back of our property gives way to family land. We cleared out the underbrush to make it traversable and brought in loads of mulch to protect the barren ground from erosion. That was four years ago.

Our back lawn is still a work in progress. We aerate and overseed season after season, trying to get enough grass to grow to choke out the weeds. The clay that they dug for the foundation just makes for poor soil. In the woods, however, all the mulch we put down has mixed with the falling leaves and branches to create a dark, gloriously rich soil that would grow just about anything (as evidenced by the plethora of weeds that pop up every year). The woods, too, are still a work in progress, but we have plans.

A few weeks ago, my husband happened to notice a crew trimming trees on the street behind us. Knowing that they’re always looking for convenient places to dump the mulch, he stopped and told them we were needing another layer and would be happy to take it off their hands. The very next day, we heard the beeping and looked out back to see the first of two loads piling up.

Our son spread most of the mulch himself (at a price), but before the end of the second load, he was done. I grabbed a shovel and pitched in to help him.

As I filled load after load of the sweet-smelling bark and wood chips, casting them over the barren, washed-out places where dark soil peeks through, I thought about J.R.R. Tolkien’s quote about the leaf-mold of the mind:

“One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much personal selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mold is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

With each traipse across springy ground, already thickly covered, I thought about the things I’ve read and watched and experienced that compose the existing leaf-mold of my mind—the rich ground from which my stories grow. There’s a great big heap of Bible, mounds of poetry, loads of novels and plays, stories and tales, flavors of other cultures, and shovel-fulls of movies, shows, and twaddle mixed in. All the places I’ve visited, the people I’ve known, the things I’ve experienced… It’s humbling to think of all the riches there.

With each new shovel-full of mulch, however, I began to think about what more I’ve planned to heap on top of the compost pile. I have a stack of unread books beside my bed and am slowly working my way through them. Some are voices from my own tradition, but others offer me new perspective. Some are recent, others from the distant past.

Beyond the books, though, I think about all the voices swirling in the air right now. I could pick up a device and tune it to any one of them, in sound bytes or long waves. Well-thought articles, hasty posts, debates, conversations, comments. Every little bit goes in.

I think about what I’m tossing onto my children’s piles as well. So much of what we do right now forms their understanding, and their tastes.

I need to be careful to listen.

I need to be careful who I listen to.

I need to hear from voices I like, that reinforce what I know to be true, but I also need to hear from voices that challenge my thinking, that shove me out of my comfort zone, that keep me on my toes.

I need to listen to voices of reason, to voices of rest, to voices of riot.

If I am telling stories, I want to tell the truest ones. So I read, and watch, and listen for the truth—even if it makes me uncomfortable. And when it all becomes too much, I’ll turn it off and let it decompose until I hear only the One Voice whose word matters (literally). He’ll take these dead things and make them new.

We’re done with the mulch pile for now, so I’ll pass the shovel on to you.

What are you adding to the leaf-mold of your mind?


Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

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