Friday, November 20, 2009


Sally and I raked leaves on Wednesday afternoon. Though it was quite chilly, we knew we had only one clear day before a Pacific storm rolled in, carrying with it certain rain and the threat of snow. As it was we had waited longer to get around to the annual task than had our neighbors. I am lazy, of course, but that description neither fits Sally nor applies to our reason for delaying yard maintenance. Our leaves simply didn't fall when everyone else's did. The birch tree in the front yard blazed bright yellow until just a few days ago. The Gravenstein apple tree in the back corner retained its foliage with a seeming tenacity that we wish it would display with the many apples it prematurely discards each summer. But by Wednesday enough leaves had fallen onto the lawn - and few enough of them had blown across the street to Kathleen's - to justify the effort.

I loved raking leaves as a child in Terre Haute, Indiana. We had a large, sycamore tree in the front yard that, in addition to shedding bark and seed balls, dropped its dinner plate sized leaves every autumn. We raked the leaves into huge piles or built intricate battlements before forming long leaf piles in the street gutters, where they were burned. I so clearly remember that wonderful smell, and the wonder of stirring oxygen and new life into seemingly dead embers, running along the gutter with a stick, trailing fire behind me.

Our family moved to Indianapolis in 1963, and leaf raking lost its childhood appeal. Dad was so taken with the heavily wooded acre on which our new house was to be built that he wouldn't allow the contractor to clear the construction site. My brothers and I - in fairness, mostly my older brothers - spent long hours helping Dad clear brush and saw up the trees that were felled to make room for the house. When all was said and done, more than 300 trees were left standing: hickory, oak, ash, and tulip poplar. We had young, thin trees stretching skyward in search of a shaft of light, and true forest giants bent on capturing every last ray in their huge canopies.

In the fall we experienced a veritable riot of leaves. Given the dark shade of our forest, we had no lawn to speak of - only wild flowers and mosses - yet Dad insisted we rake up the countless leaves as if they would otherwise kill the grass. Leaves could only be burned in an incinerator, which we lacked, and so ours were dragged through the fence gate to the undeveloped lot behind us where they were piled into an enormous leaf mountain. At least it was as close to a mountain as you're likely to get in central Indiana. Other than occasional episodes of "King of the Mountain", there was no jumping and no battlement construction. There really wasn't time to play, what with all the leaves still awaiting us. We knew from experience that we would have no free time until every last leaf was gathered.

The loss of childhood innocence has been variously portrayed in literature, both the great and the pedestrian. In most instances that painful, awkward transformation is illustrated as sexual awakening or the sudden awareness of the dark side of human nature. I would illustrate that loss differently, as the moment when falling leaves bring out in us, not playfulness, but a sense of drudgery and dread that matches the gray autumn skies, when joy is reduced to the fleeting moment between chores as we cross off a task on the "to do" list for another season.

I'm not going to jump into a pile of leaves this fall. Even at my age that activity could be considered an extreme sport. But I think I'll collect a few leaves into a pile to burn this afternoon, just so I can smell childhood once more.

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