The inevitable autumn ritual of raking leaves began today, and it brought me back to the words of the late physician-author Lewis Thomas — and to my middle son’s birthday party almost 20 years ago.
Thomas wrote an essay, “On Smell,” about the power of that particular sense. He wrote that the pleasing odor of burning leaves was the only smell he could conjure merely by thinking about it.
Thomas, who died in 1993, recognized the environmental hazards of burning leaves, but objected to the existence of laws prohibiting it.
As I raked the leaves in my front yard today and pushed them to the curb, I thought back to a similarly gorgeous October Saturday in 1994 when nearly a dozen children — ages 2 to 6 — invaded our house for my 4-year-old son’s birthday.
As anyone who’s ever hosted one of those grand events will attest, if it’s at all possible to keep your guests off the furniture, you do it.
The energetic visitors were ushered into the back yard, where they ran, chased and tackled to their heart’s content. They paid no heed to the leaves that covered almost every inch of the yard. I had left them where they fell, of course, because with three kids ages 6 and under, yard work is not a priority.
Then inspiration struck. I grabbed a rake and made a huge pile. The party guests saw what I was up to, and didn’t need any instructions.
It was an immediate free-for-all. They ran through the pile, threw leaves at each other, buried one another in them. From oldest to youngest, they all got into the act.
So did I, big kid that I was and still am. “My turn! Bury me!”
As I lay on the ground and closed my eyes and mouth, I breathed deeply and reveled in a long-forgotten, comforting odor — decaying leaves, mixed with grass and dirt, taking care of their last bit of business in the cycle of the seasons.
That day, as I did again today, I thought of the people I see every October raking, bagging, chasing leaves around their yards with portable blowers. Now I’m one of them, although a rake is all I use.
Thomas ends his essay with this suggestion for fallen leaves: We should give them back to the children to burn.
I’ll disagree, but only partly. We should give them back to the children to jump in, run through and bury grownups in.