On the smell of burning leaves

This is a nostalgia piece, and normally I hate nostalgia because it conjures a false image of the past that never existed, but this topic might be a little different because it has to do the master of memories, a strong evocative smell. When I was a kid, we had huge trees around our house, so we also had a lot of leaves on the ground in October and November. We raked the brown and yellow and red leaves into enormous piles which at some point we would burn. Today, of course, you can’t burn your leaves without the police and fire department showing up to raise hell with you, and to be honest, it is air pollution. Having an open fire on your property or in the street is totally illegal. Back in the day, if my memory serves me right, back in the sixties, we would burn our leaves each fall, and an almost magic smoke would fill the air. Both acrid and sweet, the smoke had an incredibly rich smell which evokes for me other times and other places, people, seasons, short days, crisp nights, bare trees, incipient winter. The fallen leaves, the burning leaves, were announcing the changing season. I was so much younger then, younger than anyone really has a right to be. When I accidentally smell that smell today, the memories just wash over me like a huge unexpected wave. That nostalgia plumbs the depths of innocence as you warm your cold hands over the flames of memory. Sparks fly up and away in the darkness, children smile and watch the flames, chatting about nothing, but the bonds of those times are strong even though all of that–the burning leaves–is gone, up in smoke, a mirage lost in the past of another lifetime, another country. They say the past is a place to which we will never return, but the memories conjured by those potent and pungent smells assail us in ways we cannot ignore. The burning leaves of our pasts are still there, still burning, and the poetry that we wrote then, inspired by those people, places and events, will always return us to the past when we catch just the slightest wisp of smoke.