Craig Jones Columnist Jonesy's Notebook
The transcript of an interview with some MDI men who stepped up and made a difference during The Great Toilet Paper Crisis from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Q: Well, thanks to you and the efforts of your men’s team, in partnership with Atlanta men, the term “leaf collection” is taking on a whole new meaning in our culture. How did it all get started?
A: Well, it began during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when, as you no doubt remember, there was a lot of angst about running out of certain paper products related to personal hygiene. Retail shelves were empty. I worked in the grocery industry at the time and was in the thick of it. The tip of the spear, as it were, a worker in an essential industry. I saw those customers with the thousand-yard stares, their empty eyes and fear of running out of toilet paper during a long quarantine. My heart went out to them.
But there was little we could do because, no matter how much we ordered, there were case limits and sometimes we only got a small amount in order that all stores in the chain could get some. Customers wandered in there not knowing what to do because they had gotten to the store too late and would have to leave, bereft.
One day I was talking with an old timer who was shopping during the 8 to 9 a.m. hour when only over-60s were allowed. He was trying to get a handle on why all the fuss over running out of TP. He said, “There’s always leaves, right?” And I said “Right, spot on, of course,” having used fistfuls of leaves myself a good-many times in the woods.
Q: Wow, that’s intense.
A: I started to wonder if leaves might be the answer. Up here in New England it wasn’t leaf season. Sure, there were a lot of brown ones lying around with nothing to do but rot. Why not find a use for them? But they were all wet at this point from snowmelt and had zero ability to absorb any more moisture. And, if not wet, they were dry and crinkly, also useless and unable to absorb or wipe anything. Then, out of nowhere, I thought, “What if we somehow imported leaves, useful leaves, from somewhere else?” Leaves that weren’t being used for anything, leaves that wouldn’t be missed.
Q: It’s amazing no one had thought of it before.
A: I was a Boy Scout, familiar with all kinds of collections. Bottle drives, canned goods, paper. I remembered hearing stories of rubber drives in World War II. There were leaf collection services in the fall, of course, most communities have those. This would just be a little different kind with a different purpose. Rather than taking them away from homes, we’d be delivering them.
The question arose “What kind of leaves?” I wasn’t sure, having used whatever I could find when I needed them on hiking trips or in an emergency stop during a long run. Beggars can’t be choosy, though I knew what poison ivy looked like.
“Jesus, it might as well have said in bold type: “Also perfect for wiping your ass.” The largest indigenous leaf, holy shit!”
Q: How did you go about deciding?
A: I texted my good friend who’s a certified arborist. We share a love of trees that goes back to Scouting. He’s also an Eagle Scout, like me.
I texted “So, Mr. Arborist – Based on your vast knowledge of trees, what leaves work the best for wiping your ass?”
“Sugar or Norway Maple leaves would work well, except they aren’t out now. So, you may be stuck with Spruce bows. Are you out of toilet paper?”
I thought about it some more and looked through old Scout books and texted him back, saying, “I think Basswood would be perfect for ass-wiping, too.” I’ve always loved how utilitarian Basswood is. You can use the fibrous inner bark to make lines, the wood make good whittling and, most importantly, the leaves are large and well-shaped, with a lot of surface area. Not like oak or maple with all the indentations, as attractive as they are. Too easy to have a finger lose its way.
To that my friend replied, “Actually this is the best!” With that, he had included a link to missouribotanicalgarden.org and an article about Magnolia macrophylla, none other than one of the iconic trees of the southeastern US, otherwise known as Bigleaf Magnolia.
Here’s what I learned:
Magnolia macrophylla, commonly called Bigleaf Magnolia, is noted for its huge oblong-obovate leaves (to 30 inches long) which are the largest simple leaves of any tree indigenous to North America.
Q: Oblong-obovate, huh? Very impressive.
A: Yeah, I had to look that one up. Somewhere between oblong and egg-shaped.
Anyway, the leaves are green above and silvery-gray below. This unusual tree is rarely found in the wild, being limited mainly to a few rich wooded areas in river valleys and ravines in the southeastern United States. It is a pyramidal tree that develops a spreading rounded crown with age, typically growing 30’-40’ tall. Fragrant, open, cup-shaped flowers to 8-10” (less frequently to 12”) will bloom in May. Flowers are white with rose-purple at the petal bases. Although quite large, the flowers are often located far off the ground and are not always easy to see close up. Flowers give way to spherical, cone-like fruits which mature to red in late summer, releasing individual red-coated seeds suspended on slender threads at maturity.
Genus name honors Pierre Magnol, French botanist (1638-1715).
Specific epithet is from the Greek words macro meaning large and phyllon meaning leaf in reference to the huge leaves.
Jesus, it might as well have said in bold type: “Also perfect for wiping your ass.” The largest indigenous leaf, holy shit!
Q: So, there were technical problems to be solved, obviously…right?
A: Right. How to devise an immediate pipeline from southern states to the north, for example, where we would have no viable leaves until at least May. Even then, most trees haven’t fully leafed out. We found out that these huge magnolia leaves don’t drop all at once. Leaf drop is also called “abscission” by the way. Might as well learn while you’re serving, right?
They fall over time, rather than all at once, and they take a long time to decompose, making them an annoyance to home owners. So, you see, there’d be a constant supply and the leaves would survive the trip still in working condition, so to speak.
Q: What else?
A: Collection can have an adverse impact on this tree’s population, due to low population density , and high collection pressure can extirpate (yeah, I had to look it up, too) this species locally. Bigleaf magnolia is listed as threatened in North Carolina and endangered in Arkansas and Ohio.
We had to be sensitive to this. Not tone-deaf, even with a national emergency.
Q: But no problem in Georgia, correct?
A: Right. Which is where the Georgia men came in. We had a flurry of Zoom calls and it started off slowly, with a few men gathering all the unwanted Magnolia leaves they could find. We funded the first few UPS and FedEx runs as teams, just because we wanted to help.
Q: And the rest, as they say, is history.
A: Yes. It was amazing to see how many of our fellow citizens in the south wanted to help us Yankees up here. We’ve had an endless supply of huge, absorptive Magnolia leaves and no trouble finding financing. Homeowners are grateful to be able to donate to a worthy cause, while getting their yards cleaned up.
Q: The use is efficient and clean, too.
A: Better for the earth and helping with climate change. We’re working on figuring out how much wood pulp (and how many trees, therefore) has been saved by reusing so many leaves, rather than making new toilet paper.
And talk about efficient! One single leaf, if carefully cut and sectioned, can take care of one adult or two children. These wipes are huge and, I might add, not unpleasant to use.