Smoke Alarm

Author and humorist Philip Gulley wonders, "What ever happened to the satisfying ritual of burning autumn leaves?"

Image © SEPS
Image © SEPS

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When we moved into our house, the trees were young, and what leaves they shed in fall disappeared without my assistance. I found this arrangement most pleasant and happily ignored my autumnal duties for many years. I prefer problems that take care of themselves—leaves that blow away, grass that goes dormant before it needs mowing, snow that melts of its own accord—so I was quite pleased when the few leaves that fell took it upon themselves to blow into my neighbor’s yard.

I grew up in a house on three acres filled with maple, poplar, ash, and oak trees. Because my father believed adversity was good for one’s character, he was careful not to own any lawn tools that actually worked. Our rakes were gap-toothed, missing most of their tines. Ridding the yard of leaves was an impossible task, not unlike Pharaoh ordering the Israelites to make bricks without straw. Nevertheless, my four siblings and I raked from mid-September to the first snow; our evenings and weekends were spent hauling leaves to the burn pile in the back corner of our field where our father would throw buckets of gasoline onto the smoldering piles until the flames roiled in the air like Dante’s Inferno.

By some quirk of nature, after 12 years of modest output, the trees in our yard got off their duffs and produced a bumper crop of leaves that required my attention. In the dozen years since I had raked leaves, a dramatic change in leaf removal had transpired. Scarcely had I picked up the rake when my neighbor wandered over with a leaf blower strapped to his back, herding my leaves into a great pile with an angry whine.

“When we get them all gathered,” he yelled over the scream of his blower, “we’ll run them through my shredder.”

I told him I had planned on burning the leaves in our garden.

“Against the law,” he yelled. “No open fires in town limits.”

A good part of my early years was spent burning leaves, running to and fro among the mounds of deadfall, rake in hand, feeding the fire with fresh tinder, and occasionally leaping a flaming pile like a circus tiger through a burning hoop. How could such jollity be against the law?

“What do you mean, ‘against the law’?” I asked my neighbor.

“The leaves have to be composted,” he yelled.

“I’ll set them out with the trash,” I said.

“Not possible,” he replied. “They don’t want them in the landfill.”

I was glad to see our legislators were doing all they could to keep our landfills clean.

Say what you will about paying down our national debt, that’s a cakewalk compared to the difficulty of getting rid of things. I had just spent six months trying to divest myself of a half-empty can of paint before wrapping it as a birthday gift and giving it to my brother.

I eventually disposed of the leaves by putting them in my truck with the tailgate down and speeding through the countryside until they blew out. It was a trick I’d learned from my father, who’d recently gotten rid of an old toilet in the same manner.

In the olden days, each town had a dump that would accept any form of trash, provided it could be hauled in a station wagon or pick-up truck. The dump was free and open around the clock—in case one had a yearning to poke among the debris for usable items. My first two bicycles were built from parts I scavenged from the town dump. Every family also had a burn barrel in their backyard. Most boys were curious about fire—sometimes dangerously so—but their tendencies toward arson were satisfied by burning trash in the barrel.

Then burn barrels were outlawed and dumps began charging, took up regular hours, and refused to accept old paint cans and leaves. If I were president, I’d make dumps free again and compel them to accept anything people had a mind to throw away. I would also ban leaf blowers and order people to burn their leaves so we could smell the smoke and know winter was on the way.

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  1. Not with standing the author’s nostalga, burning leaves is waste of good fertilizer. Shreded leaves make excellent compost and doesn’t pollute the environment.

  2. I agree! I greatly miss leaf/yardwaste burning. It’s a scent that takes me back to a simpler better time…


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