High on October Leaves
By Henri Marchand
WARNING: Leaf smoke can be intoxicating and stir colorful memories and images. This piece was written while under the influence of an October induced nostalgic state.
Our yard is home to six Norway Maples, a pesky strain of New England’s favorite tree, known for being aggressive with thick surface roots competing with lawns and shrubs for food and water. They are tough but have a habit of shedding branches of all sizes at the slightest breeze and create a blizzard of spiraling samaras, which, if left to sprout, would make the yard impenetrable within a couple of years. On the positive side, the trees provide shade in summer and turn to gold in late October when they provide a whirlwind of leaves for raking and playing and fueling recollections of other trees and times.
In my mind there is no better exercise than raking leaves in October, the month that spellbinds and when autumn’s transformation seems suspended and most vibrant before the landscape fades in November. October is a month of mystery, acute in its effect on the senses, imagination and memory. The weather is usually perfect, like a multi-colored May without the bugs. Cortland apples are in season and best eaten on porch steps viewing leaves as they tumble from great heights. Except for a late, short lived warm spell or an early flurry, the air cools to comfortable and the landscape glows with the saturated colors of radiant foliage against French blue skies and white clouds. Perfect weather for raking leaves.
When I was a kid mature elms and maples still lived in our neighborhood along with the occasional oak and chestnut. The stately, vase-shaped elms rose high above Riverside Street, maples stood arm-in-arm along Mt. Hope. There was a massive sugar maple by our back porch. In a grainy, circa 1915 photo it appears as a thin youngster. By the 1960s it towered above the house, its position on the south side a summer blessing, it’s leaf count an autumn bonanza. By the late 1960s these elder trees, some formally planted before the streets and sidewalks were paved, began to die off. The elms succumbed first—to age, a hurricane, Dutch elm disease and the desire to widen Riverside Street. The maples struggled on for a few more years, their annual output of leaves diminishing each year, their dying branches increasingly bare by August.
At their peak, the trees held a bumper crop of yellow, red, scarlet and orange gems for a week or so in early October. They created an overarching canopy like a stained glass ceiling until the soft panes fell silently to cover lawns and roads by the thousands. We spent hours raking the grounded foliage to create ever higher piles. We dove into the piles and used them for hide-and-seek games before dashing through and re-scattering them all over again. There were so many, we could jump off a porch from five or six feet up and not get hurt. We used small piles as markers for our touch football games and stuffed leaves into old clothes, creating pudgy Halloween scarecrows we imagined would frighten passersby. Sometimes adults would warn us to be careful of hidden bugs or sticks but we mostly ignored them. Some years we started collections of leaves, preserving their freshly liberated shapes and colors between two sheets of ironed wax paper or pressed between the pages of books. Those too are long gone.
I can’t recall what happened to our leaves, whether my Dad filled the weekly trash barrels with them or if they simply remained on the lawn, reduced by our month long play to confetti-sized pieces that eventually decayed and returned to their roots.
Today I tote my maples’ leaves, some 90 bags or so, to the Dracut yard waste site and exchange them for buckets of last year’s composted leaves and grass. Before yard waste was picked up or dropped off at municipal compost sites, October air was thick with leaf smoke as neighbors burned leaves in barrels or along street gutters as an alternative to filling countless barrels for trash pickup. While it’s a good thing for the environment that we no longer fire up heaps of leaves at will, I admit I inhale when passing through a neighborhood where a fire permit allows for the burning of brush and leaves. The smoke remains a pleasing, intoxicating fragrance—scented candle companies take note, a “Leaf Smoke” candle would be a hot seller! That scent, tied to times of care-free autumn play, also produces fond and pleasing memories. Every October I think of creating a small, pleasing pyre of leaves and as the smoke works its magic, munch on a Cortland apple.
These days I avoid diving into a pile of my late season leaf harvest alone lest I injure my now less supple body or cause my neighbors to question my state of mind. But when my grandkids visit during peak leaf season, we create great piles and I take a turn jumping in and tossing leaves skyward for a second cascade. Recording their joy in this simple play on my smart phone, I realize that October continues to spellbind after all these years, even as it heralds the gray days of November.