When I was growing up in Portland, I absorbed the beauty of the Earth as I walked down the hill on Prospect Street. The street was lit by the gold of the falling leaves, and I was in the embrace of the arms of the chestnut trees that reached into the darkening skies. I filled my pockets with the weight of these ancient nuts as I anticipated the adventure to come.

For Lorry Stillman and her brother and sister, burning the leaves that fell from American chestnut trees was a ritual each autumn. This record-setting specimen, off Route 5 in Lovell, is one of the few survivors of a parasite that devastated the species. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

Rounding the corner to Cottage Street, I smelled the burning crispness of the leaf fires that lined the way. My brother was the fire starter, lighting short matches around the edges of the leaf piles. As the oldest child, he was given the power of teasing awake the flames with a metal rake. My sister and I stood close, our faces warmed by the embers, our hair and wool coats absorbing the smell of the smoke. As the flames became hot embers, I tossed the chestnuts into the smoky pyres. This was a ritual performed at dusk, and the pop and sizzle of their shells fed the flames and echoed in the silent approaching darkness.

When the dinner hour approached and we were summoned inside, the chestnuts cooled in the blackness of the night. Just before the porch light was turned off and the back door of the house was locked, we would creep down the stairs to retrieve the chestnuts that had cooled in the ashes. Raking them into a clear space of the street, we filled our pockets with their warmth, the ensuing winter sky warned away for just a moment.

And autumn dusk still brings the memory of those glorious evenings. There are no leaf piles to burn these days, and the chestnuts have long ago been lost to generations of invasive pests, but I can still walk those streets and hear the roar of the flames in the unsheltered outdoors and smell the smudges of ash on my hands and in my pockets.

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