Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ode to Autumn

Or, as John Keats more or less famously wrote,

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; 
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,         
 And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core... 

I’m sure you’ve had very similar thoughts about autumn yourself.  I was thinking of these lines because I was an English major and have most of my memory occupied by lines of poetry and popular song lyrics. Keats was a favorite of English majors, producing a prodigious amount of work in a few years and dying of tuberculosis at age 26.  He was on the verge of producing a new type of poetry when he died.  Ah, Keats, why did you have to die? I actually heard someone say this near the end of a course in Keats (there are such things) after we had all pretty much worked ourselves into a lather about his premature demise.

I was doing a prewriting discussion with my ESOL class a couple of years ago about activities during each season.  The assignment was then to write about their favorite season and tell why it was their favorite.  As we were talking about fall, I noticed that no one had listed raking leaves so I put that up.  Then, on a whim, I told them that people used to burn the leaves they raked up.  It generated a unique smell, one that I’m sure I would still associate with those autumn afternoons if burning were still practiced. My students wanted to know why people burned leaves. “To get rid of them,” I said.

When I was growing up we lived on Maple Street in Fairfax, an aptly named street with dozens of mature maples crowding the yards.  They were ideal for climbing and building treehouses in, and of course their leaves turned brilliant reds, oranges and golds in season.  Then the leaves fell and then they had to be raked up.  This was by and large a Saturday occupation—whole families were out with rakes, moving the leaves into huge piles. This was long before the day of the gas-powered leaf blower, so it was a tranquil and enjoyable time outdoors together in the cool autumn weather.  Then we burned the leaves, which was incredibly exciting to the children. Open fires blazing like Viking funerals! What a sight! Pyres of smoke and flame all up and down the street! Of course, the smoke was not particularly good for our breathing and the practice did get out of hand occasionally.  I never saw anyone’s house catch fire, but a family a couple of houses up from us caught a large oak tree in their front yard on fire.  Now that was something to see—a fifty or sixty-foot tree blazing like a torch.  The fire department was called, which was even more exciting.  They promptly put the fire out and left.  I don’t remember them scolding the people whose tree had burned.  Such occurrences were to be expected when people burned leaves.

These were not the only dangerous practices we engaged in.  We rode bikes without helmets in the middle of the road for years. I scraped my knees plenty of times but never broke my head open.  I think that was due to pure luck (and a hard head). We also played with mercury using our bare fingers, used asbestos products without protection, and rode in cars with largely metal interiors without seatbelts.  Looking back on it, it’s wonder any of us survived. And I’m not suggesting any of these practices were admirable or wise.  We’re fortunate to know about the dangers of this world and to be able to take precautions against them.  It’s obvious why leaf burning is banned in most urban and suburban locations.  The City of Manassas thoughtfully provides leaf pickup during the fall using what must be the world’s biggest portable vacuum cleaner.  My nephew blows the leaves to the curb about four times a fall and the City picks them up.  It’s easy, clean and convenient.  Still, though, I might take just one leaf and burn it (using proper precautions of course) in the fireplace just to see if it smells like I remember it.  I just bet it does.

Note: In the Poem of the Week feature a couple of weeks ago, I was puzzled by my paternal grandfather signing his name "Lorans" and the registrar spelling it "Lorense." This week my dad told me that he went by "Lorenzo" early on. That would account more closely for the variant spellings. 

1 comment:

  1. Burning leaves when I was little in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Jumping in leaf piles we'd just raked up and raking them up again. Thanks for the memories!