Sometimes in the fall or winter when I’m driving along country roads or through little towns an old, sweet aroma works its way through the air vents in my car and makes me smile.
Some of you who think you’ve got my number are assuming it’s a food smell – barbeque or some such – but you’re wrong.
It’s a pile of leaves being burned.
Up in Oakwood on cold, windless days in my boyhood smoke from such bonfires would wander through that town like friendly ghosts. It was pleasant, that smoke, and in its own way reassuring. It meant the seasons were marching forward right on schedule, and that all was well.
It was the nature writer Henry Beston –his “The Outermost House” and “The Farm” are reads worth spending time with – who summed autumn’s transition up nicely. “The leaves fall,” he says, “the wind blows, and the farm slowly changes from summer cotton to its winter wools.”
There was a time when families raked up leaves together on pretty autumn days. The kids wouldn’t usually be all that helpful, kicking around in the stack and throwing handfuls of leaves, but finally somebody would be given the honor of striking a match and igniting the pyre. Of course that was when families actually ventured out into the yard together, before more important things like computer games and texting and reality television came along.
This time of year my backyard is often covered over with a thick blanket of reddish brown leaves, crispy and brittle on sunny days and soggy on rainy ones. If I could pile them up and burn them – which would violate a bevy of municipal codes and have the law down on me like G-men on Al Capone – I’d have already happily raked them up and set them ablaze. There are a few well-seasoned folks in my neighborhood who grew up in the country who’d probably appreciate the fragrance of burning leaves. It might even awaken a memory or two, and bring some special people in their pasts back to life for a few minutes in their minds.
Psychologists maintain that smell is the quickest of the five senses to trigger things locked away in memory. And it doesn’t have to be a pleasing smell. I once wrote in a newspaper column about how the odor of strong diesel fumes takes me back more than forty years to the army motor pool where I was a job-order clerk in Germany as swiftly as the smell of boiling butter beans transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen even longer ago than that.
After that column ran I heard from several readers about unique smells that serve as time machines for them, everything from burning rubber to cow manure. Personally, I wouldn’t associate either of those smells – or some others I was told about – with anything nostalgic, but to each his own. One person’s stench is another’s bouquet.
For yours truly, one whiff of burning leaves is enough to carry me back to a little town that is much changed and to a white frame house that is long gone.
Well, back to the present. Since I can’t burn them, I suppose I’ll finally get around to mowing my leaves up, telling myself all the while that they’ll provide beneficial mulch for the lawn that has suffered mightily in the recent drought. I might even get industrious and rake them up, bag them, and put them out by the curb. But not just yet.
I’m not opposed, you see, to a yard covered with leaves. I think it looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, and I enjoy the sight and sound of wind rustling through them while I sit on the patio. Who knows? The scent of a dewberry cobbler being baked or chickens being grilled might drift by while I’m out there, either of which would wake up a plethora of good memories for me.
If you love to read, you’ve probably noticed when a good writer uses the sense of smell to describe a scene. And if you intend to write something that someone else will love to read, you’d better employ this unique writer’s tool pretty often.
Let’s hear from you. What specific smell triggers a memory and quickly takes you back to another time and place?