October 27, 2013

Maine Observer: The smell of burning leaves is a ghost of autumns past

Now we blow, stuff, drag and vacuum up our leaves, consigning the pleasant activity of raking and burning to memory.


about the author

Charles Packard lives and rakes leaves in Camden.

When all is said and done, was burning raked leaves that much more environmentally harmful than using a leafblower?

John Greenleaf Whittier, in his poem “The Pumpkin,” asked rhetorically, “What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?” Today, he might well ask, his middle name notwithstanding, “What calls back the past, like the burning at dusk of raked autumn leaves?”

But, in the contemporary case of the burning of leaves, Whittier’s amended query would of course transcend the rhetorical and arrive somewhere in the realm of the ridiculous. After all, we still have pumpkin pies. But burning leaves? Everyone knows that, these days, a family will quickly be declared felonious if it burns its raked leaves at streetside.

Nowadays we stuff leaves into oversized plastic bags for burial at the municipal landfill (once known, and by some still known, as “the town dump”). Or we tarp the leaves to backyard leaf mausoleums, locally called mulch piles, unlikely to be revisited until next year, if then.

Or, most often, with loud, gas-fueled, fume-spewing leafblowers strapped to our backs in curiously unchallenged gestures of defiance to global warming, we crowd the leaves into road-edge heaps so that even louder and more gaseous vacuum trucks can transport them for interment.

No, we do not burn our leaves, not if we know what’s good for us. Yet those of us born and raised just after dinosaurs disappeared clearly recall that, back then, the burning of leaves at dusk and beyond was not only good for us, but very good for us, very good for family unity and tradition. And not noisy, either. Nor gaseous.

A bygone day, or so it seems. Yet of what help are today’s global-warming warnings if no one can hear them above the ear-splitting and, more to the point, fume-spewing leafblowers?

What could take the place of the gas-powered leafblower? That’s an easy one: the arm-powered human raker, the leafblower’s historical predecessor. A good thing, too, for more than one reason. According to Richard Johnson, chairman of the Physical Therapy Program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, raking is an exercise that tests the upper-trunk, shoulder and lower-leg muscles. So he advises alternating which hand guides the rake and making sure to “rake and break.” Note that this is a genuine physical activity, one in which operator earmuffs are not needed.

And what better place to end this “rake and break” sequence than on the edge of a neighborhood street just before and continuing after dark on a chilly evening, then standing next to a long narrow row of quietly burning leaves while leaning on a rake and enjoying the fire’s face-warming heat as the sweet smell of smoke infuses the hand-knit wool sweaters of all family members meditatively present?

– Special to the Telegram

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