By David Hawke -- There are certain, unmistakable, signs of seasonal change.
As autumn approaches winter, geese can be seen flying overhead, the hardwood trees change colour, squirrels gather beech nuts, and once upon a time there was the all-enveloping smoke that drifted from smouldering piles of raked leaves.
Yes, just as surely as the birds went south, the autumnal pyromaniacs emerged for their brief, but noticeable, time of year. I have no idea where this silly tradition began, the concept that dead leaves must be removed from a yard as soon as they hit the ground. Can you imagine our forefathers worrying about this obsession with fallen leaves?
"Sorry, Martha, can't slaughter the hog today, gotta rake the dead leaves outta the back field." In those days common sense overrode the vanity of pretty green lawns.
However, admittedly, I'm guilty of lighting more than a couple of those fires myself. I mean, what fall would be complete without the pungent smell of wood smoke in the air? Perhaps the smell of the smoke stirs some ancient feeling, causes us to 'remember' days when a wood fire was the only thing between you and the bitter cold, when wood-fired stoves made the difference between a hot meal and a cold one.
I can remember (because I'm now an old coot) the older residential sections of town disappearing annually in the grey smoke from dozens of burning leafy piles. In the 1960s, our street (Nottawasaga... hey, I can still spell it) was a quiet tree-lined area, with grassy boulevards stretching widely from sidewalk to roadside. No curbs in those days, just a shallow ditch which was perfect for holding the dead maple leaves that were deposited there by noon on a Saturday. And by 2 o'clock that afternoon the street was a foggy screen of acrid smoke, with dozens of fires smouldering up and down the street.
Unfortunately, contained within this smoke, were several pollutants which, when added to the myriad of other interesting thingies floating around, create air that is no longer breathable, at least from a health standpoint.
And so laws, by-laws, policies, and guidelines have been created and approved to eliminate this particular pollutant: "Thou shalt not burn leaves, never, ever again! Not in this fair town! And if you do... you'll be in big poop!" Well, maybe not worded exactly like that, but you get my drift.
As long as I'm taking pot-shots at odd autumn activities, let me take aim at another related event, one which also has all but disappeared... the contest to see who can stuff the most dead leaves into a plastic bag. Bag-stuffing had replaced leaf-burning as the thing to do about those awful dead leaves. Which lead to another tradition which was to take these bags of leaves far out into the countryside and dump them in the ditch. If only they would have dumped the leaves out of the bag, rather than leaving them trussed inside.
Nowadays we have curb-side pickup of our beloved leaves, so long as they are in municipally approved paper containers. Is this a sign of an advancing society, whereas we have evolved from leaf burners into leaf collectors? If so, I like it.
However, a lot of the bag-stuffers (and the few leaf-burners who are still out there) are missing a great big point. Leaves have been falling from trees for many years, even before we Europeans arrived with words like 'settlement' and 'subdivision.' And hey, the world back then was surviving quite well.
As those leaves fell to the ground, they formed a temporary mat, a wet blanket that held moisture in the ground thus ensuring that plants could survive the winter. Tiny creatures also relied on this layer for protection and food, and as they burrowed through and ate the decomposing leaves, they left organic deposits which provided food for new plants next spring.
And when spring did arrive, the leaves had rotted to a state that they provided a perfect mulch to new growth. Life continued in an orderly and efficient manner.
At my rural home there are a lot of trees and a darn big lawn, so autumn leaf-herding becomes a chore spread over a couple weeks. Using an arsenal of leaf-blowers, wide rakes, an ATV, trailer and a couple of old farm forks (yes, 'forks', not 'folks'... although the folks handling the forks do have a wide age range) we round up the cast-off maple and oak leaves, load and haul them off the lawn. They are then deposited under the small oaks and walnuts that we planted in the nearby fields, thus creating an artificial forest floor to assist these young trees in their growth.
Not everyone has a convenient tree farm as a place to dump their leaves, but perhaps as a society we need to back off a bit on the concept of a truly leaf-free yard. Rake and bag what you can, and run the lawn mower over the rest.
Yes, this annual round-up has changed over the decades, becoming more of a science than a hobby. Yet still, there is a part of me that misses that acrid nasal sense of a seasonal shift.
© 2018 David J. Hawke