New England autumn played the senses of a young boy though I would not have thought of it like that then. There was the sight of the colored leaves, those fallen commanding attention more than the tree bound, the reds and yellows and oranges and all the colors in between, sorting through them in search of the most beautiful to present to my mom. The sound of my feet shuffling through piles of fallen and dried leaves that collected at street's edge, crunch and swoosh, a sound that could be nothing else and so enjoyable as to cause me to seek more and alter my path just to do it, hear it, again. The pleasant feel of the autumn breeze, fresh and clean, so unlike the warm and heavy humid currents of summer or the painful cold wind of winter. The crisp taste of a just picked McIntosh from a daytrip to a nearby orchard.
The smell is gone. The colors are still there, appreciated even more now in a single leaf, a tree in sunlight or a landscape on an October drive. Walking through a pile of dried leaves, the sound unchanged all these years, still tempts, still diverts the path taken. An autumn breeze still pleases, welcomed all the more. An apple, carefully chosen and polished, still delights.
But the smell. The smell of burning leaves was different and special -- a unique smell that the burning of wood in a fireplace or wood stove, while often pleasant, does not replicate. Special because it was part of a process that involved a day of work and fun and family.
A day was set aside for raking. The scratching sound of the rake moving at a regular and unhurried pace that a grandparent could maintain. The discussion about rakes -- which was better, metal or bamboo, and who had to use the one with the broken tine. The old peach baskets from the grocer, made of wooden slats so thin that it amazed that they did not break, with wire handles, and carefully stored in the basement to be used each year. The piles of leaves that demanded running through and tossing about until a parent gently suggested the return to the task at hand.
At last, when enough leaves had been raked and gathered the fire was lit and while others continued to rake, to fill baskets, to carry more leaves to the fire, somebody watched and carefully controlled the burning so that it remain safe and so that all the leaves were burned. The hose, always brought nearby "just in case" was never needed. As the day slowly moved along the smell of the burning leaves soaked into our clothes. Dusk approached and the fire was allowed to die down and burn itself out. But that wonderful and special smell lingered in the air. When we were finally inside our clothes reminded us of the good day we had enjoyed and we shed them almost reluctantly as if unwilling to end it all. After bathing we might sneak into the laundry to get one last whiff.
We do not burn leaves anymore. Concern about having clean air, about pollution, has long ended the ritual. Progress has supplanted the pleasant and pleasing sound of the rake with the noise of the leaf blower. The piles of leaves gathered for burning are replaced with brown leaf bags adorned with logos and corporate colors standing in a row like unarmed soldiers having surrendered and awaiting their pickup by a large truck that rumbles along.
But every once in a while, from where I do not know, I will smell, or think that I do, just a hint of burning leaves and journey for a moment in my mind's eye to a time and scene too long passed.
First appeared in The Northern New England Review.