Burning Leaves

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When I think about fall, the first thing I think about are the leaves and how they change. Even as early as August, you can begin to see signs of the coming autumn season, usually starting with the sweet gum tree down by the road….a patch of yellow here and there, peeking through the green leaves. Not a lot mind you, but just enough to reassure you that the summer is winding down, even if the heat doesn’t know when it’s time to quit.

MaplesGrowing up, leaves were more of a pestilence than anything else. All we seemed to have in our suburban yard were these giant, ancient oak trees that rained acorns down and whose leaves went from “green to brown to down”, meaning all over the yard. Raking them was a chore that Dad always managed to foist off on my brother and I, and it never failed that whatever amount of work we got done in one day would be undone just as quickly by the nightly rain of newly fallen ones. Eventually he would give up and hire some crew of folks who actually knew what they were doing to finish the job, usually when the last of them had fallen.

Back then, we could haul all the leaves to the ditch and the city street department would come by, driving a giant truck complete with the world’s largest vacuum cleaner attached, and suck up all the leaves into the truck. That might take a few days though, and in the meantime, all of us would enjoy them, jumping and diving into the piles as if they were some sort of swimming pool.

We didn’t think about what might be IN the leaf piles back then…large sticks for one thing, and certainly a snake was always possible. We just didn’t stop to consider all the reasons not to jump in them, choosing fun and reckless abandonment over caution and prudence.

Burning leaves was always fun too, though it was not allowed in Jackson. Officially sanctioned leaf pile burning was the exclusive province of Jenkinsburg, and had satellite imagery been available in the 1970’s, Jenkinsburg would have surely been obscured by a hazy cloud of smoke during the month of October each year.

George W. "Toots" CastonMy grandfather loved leaves on trees, especially autumn colors, and he could boast the most beautiful trees in the town. His sugar maples, brought down from Vermont some 65 years ago, are a vibrant sight still today for travelers on Highway 42, but once those leaves came down, he wanted them gone. He would rake his entire yard into one giant pile, there to sit until the day of burning arrived.

I would get word from him through my grandmother when it was time (he eschewed telephones unto his dying day) and I would come to up to Jenkinsburg. Once I arrived, we would burn the leaves in a large, open bare spot in the far back yard. He would stand close by with his rake to stir up the burning leaves as needed, while I would stand there with the water hose ready, just in case the fire got loose, which it did now and then. If the fire got too big, he would also have me spray a bit of water on it to temper it down a bit. This probably planted the seed in my mind of becoming a volunteer firefighter some years later.

Usually, we weren’t the only ones burning leaves. Up and down the street, neighbors would be burning their piles as well and soon, the entire town smelled like burning leaves…but it wasn’t a bad smell as long as you weren’t in the smoke itself. Even now, the smell of burning leaves reminds me of those days with him doing the only thing remotely connected to yard work that was actually fun.

Part of that fun was seeing how big the fire would get before he had me knock it down a little, but the first order of business was to actually get the fire started. I don’t know how others did it, but he had a unique way of setting the leaves on fire and this is where I first learned something that most people already know how to do.

Using matches outdoors is exercise in futility most of the time. The slightest breeze would blow your match out and you’d have to start again. It seemed there was always a breeze in October too, so matches were out of the question. My grandfather had given up smoking some years earlier and I don’t think he ever had a lighter anyway. What he did was take my grandmother’s magnifying class and hold it at just the right angle to catch the sun, and within seconds, the leaves began to burn. Once they got going, an impressive fire would soon be roaring, with an equally impressive column of smoke heading up into the sky. It was something to see.

Today, I feel sorry for all those folks in Jenkinsburg who didn’t have air conditioning and who had to shut up their windows most of the day to keep the smoke out. I can only claim that I didn’t know any better. It was a rite of passage, as autumn finished its glorious show of colors and began making way for the coming winter.

Always a short season in the south, it is probably more fully enjoyed here because it is fleeting…and it’s coming soon to a yard near you. The signs are already beginning to appear, even if the heat of summer doesn’t know when it’s time to call it day. The light outside is a bit different…the afternoon shadows grow longer and the evenings grow noticeably shorter, cutting in on the neighborhood play time that my son enjoys. The humidity is beginning to ebb as well, just a bit for now, but more and more later on. The days of  “air you can wear” are surely numbered.

I’ll look forward, in the coming weeks, to the other reminders of autumn….the leaves on my grandfather’s fully grown and mature maple and ginkgo trees being one of my favorites. I’ll look forward to pumpkins on the front porch, Halloween in Harbor Shores and refilling the candy jar in the kitchen on November 1st. I’ll definitely look forward to chilly nights, pleasantly warm days and the first frost of the season. Finally, I’ll even look forward to the aroma of leaves burning on a clear autumn day, while thinking back on those wonderful memories of seasons past.

I may even go burn some myself.