November 4, 2011

As I opened the door to let Arkie outside a little while ago I caught a whiff of burning leaves on the crisp night air. I could hear the announcer on the loudspeaker at the football field a few blocks away, along with a cheering crowd and the high school marching band. It brought back many memories, but most clearly the olfactory memory of burning leaves that has become uncommon today.

The sapling in the back yard has shed most of its bouffant in favor of a crew cut to conserve energy for the long winter months ahead. It’s not a great showing of leaves—just a tiny circle around the fledgling trunk—but it will be a thick autumn ground cover one day, akin to the great leaf falls of its predecessors. Someone will rake those leaves into a pile and maybe jump into them while giggling with glee, or hide in them and startle a sibling. And maybe someone will burn them and release the unmistakeable scent of autumn into another crisp night.

Grandma Beanie loved to burn leaves. Actually, she liked to burn most anything. When we were kids there was an incinerator in the basement where countless Monopoly and similar board games were burned after fights broke out, only to be replaced the next birthday or Christmas. As we grew older we lost fewer games to the fire as the specter of the curling, burning edges of game boards and melting plastic pieces reminded us to discuss our differences with restraint.

Changes in county codes disallowed basement incinerators some time in the 1960s or 70s, and the burning had to be moved outside to a 55 gallon barrel until that was also disallowed. Today in our county leaves are required to be in a container while burning, and the fire must be extinguished at dusk. It’s not a good idea to burn other stuff in a barrel today; it can lead to a citation and fine. Our local waste management companies tell us that we get one pound of pollution from burning five pounds of leaves, that we are in a high pollution area, and they convey to us about a zillion other harmful effects of burning learned since the 60s, so it makes sense to restrict all burning.

But when we were kids we didn’t know all of that stuff yet, and it was an autumn tradition to rake after school, which meant we usually ended up burning after dark. It was fun to see Grandma Beanie enjoying the outdoors—albeit a smoky outdoors. It was fun to run and jump into a huge pile and come out spitting tiny twigs and crunchy pieces of leaf matter. It was fun to see the fire glowing red hot and feel it toast us, one side at a time, like a human marshmallow. When the fire burned out, it was fun to head indoors and drop our smoky, chilled coats, hats and gloves and sit around the table warming our cold noses with the steam curling up from a mug of hot chocolate.

Autumn early morning offers its own memories, but those memories are visual, auditory and tactile.

There was always a rush in the house before the sun rose on autumn mornings, with seven children competing for bathroom and kitchen space. Most of us were out the door and off down the street before the sun rose, and watched the first glints of light over the horizon as we walked to school through rustling leaves and frost covered blades of grass that crackled under our feet.

One day when I stayed home from school with a sore throat I watched my siblings walk down the street, silhouetted against the rising sun and with billows of frosty breath before them. Aunt Cindy’s pixie-cut hair (similar to mine, but her hair was brunette, not blond) was wet when she left the house, and I knew how that felt. I often hurried out the door with wet hair (Grandma Beanie did NOT like that), too. It was a strange feeling to have sharp lower hair edges at the base of your neck that crackled almost like the frozen grass. The hair thawed out immediately upon entering the school, and then we got to hear from the teachers for walking to school with wet hair. I never did stop doing that, and always thought the frozen hair felt pretty neat.

All of that was before we had to comply with Daylight Saving Time, and it was dark in the morning when we left for school and dark shortly after we came home. I understand that it is now daylight when kids head for their buses and, of course, very few walk to school. We live in an environment of fear now. We fear the dark, fear cars hitting us as we walk, fear people taking our children, fear injury to ourselves. We rarely have an opportunity to just breathe and watch our breath billow as the day breaks before us. If you find a safe opportunity, take it.

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