Burning the Leaves in the Fall

“Leaf burning leads to air pollution and is a health and fire hazard. The smoke from burning leaves contains a number of toxic and/or irritating particles and gases. The tiny particles contained in smoke from burning leaves can accumulate in the lungs and stay there for years. These particles can increase the risk of respiratory infection, as well as reduce the amount of air reaching the lungs.”

Thus spake B. Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension Consumer Horticulture Specialist in a 1997 article entitled “Please Don’t Burn Your Leaves.”


The first arrival of a slightly cool snap this past week put me in mind of the sweetly perfumed skies of Miami, Oklahoma forty years ago, when neighbors would rake their leaves into neat piles and set fire to them, spreading a heavenly, autumn aroma all over the town.

Nobody complained about the smell or the smoke back then. In searching for appropriate images to accompany this article, I was quite surprised to see numerous passionate diatribes out there citing the smoke from burning leaves as the Next Great Threat. Indeed, it seems to cross that most sacred of lines: political correctness!

For instance, check out this comment from a garden club chat board, reproduced verbatim:

“im really sick of people burning leaves in their yards. is there any law against this in pennsylvania? the smell is sickening even with my windows closed tight i can still smell it. theres a cloud of smoke above my neighborhood is this legal?”

Thus complained a user who probably keeps their windows closed tight, their garage door down, and their front door bolted shut to escape possible interaction with neighbors.

That was the whole point of leaf burning. Neighbors would gather in loose groups on K Street and have conversations as their leaf piles slowly smoldered. Some neighbors were outdoors more often than others at different times of the year, but in October, everyone was outside burning leaves. Thus, you could have a conversation with Mrs. Koff, who would rarely be seen otherwise.

And I seriously doubt that any of us died from the effects of smelling leaf smoke.

And that aroma. They say that smell is the single most powerful provoker of deeply hidden memories. When I smell burning leaves, I am instantly transformed back to a slightly nippy night in October, 1967.

Leaf burning has been outlawed in my town, as it has in most cities all over the country. However, I take advantage of a loophole for backyard fire pits to enjoy a single burn of a modest amount of leaves. The procedure follows this routine, if you would like to duplicate it:

Rake up a bushel basket of leaves, then set the mulching mower to have the front wheels higher up than the rear. Mow the entire yard, chopping the leaves into nothingness. Then, place the unchopped leaves into the pit and wait for sundown.

As it gets dark, pour yourself some good bourbon over ice and set fire to your precious little stash. As it burns, savor the subtle aroma, close your eyes, and enjoy a few minutes of being a kid again, at least in your mind. Sip your bourbon, go back inside, and sleep like a baby.

For a non-paranoid look at burning leaves, check out this site.

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