Setting piles of leaves on fire in the street was once a beckoning call to winter. True to their nature, trees delighted us throughout the fall as their leaves turned red and purple and gold before fluttering onto fading lawns and raked to the curb.
All the neighborhood streets had dead leaves piled up in front of their houses. We jumped in them, waded in them and grabbed armfuls to throw into the air so we could bask under dead leaf showers.
Gathering them back into pyramids, we’d let them cure for a while until they were deep brown, crinkly crispy. We’d hunt down the perfect skinny branch to skewer our marshmallows and ready ourselves for the fire.
In the Northern Hemisphere, where I lived as a child, deciduous trees and shrubs lose all their foliage in the winter. The leaves are cut from the branches by specialized cells, a process called abscission, as in scissors. Abscission helps the tree conserve water and energy during the winter.
Piling up fallen leaves and burning them is banned in most towns now because it’s unsafe, a cause of air pollution, and makes people sick. My family moved around a lot and I didn’t react adversely to leaf smoke until we moved to deciduous Kenilworth, Illinois, during my fourth-grade school year.
A reaction to any one or more of the trees could have sent me to bed that fall —maple, oak, elm, beech, birch, walnut as well as larch, honeysuckle, poison ivy, Virginia creeper and wisteria. A lot of dead stuff ended up in the street and went up in smoke.
Leaf smoke produces fine bits of dust, soot and other particulates. After the fire party in front of our house, my eyes & sinuses swelled, my throat & lungs closed, I coughed all the time and my dizzy head ached. I laid down in my parents’ darkened room and slept for weeks.
This fall I met a friend at an outside cafe in a leafy Chicago neighborhood. We had a purpose—to entertain ourselves with the latest Trump jokes and cartoons. As we looked in and out of each others phones, my head suddenly felt too heavy to stay perched on my neck. I needed to sneeze and couldn’t, my throat closed and even though I was sitting down I was dizzy.
“Did the EPA lift the ban on burning leaves?” I asked.
“Dunno. Why?” He answered with a question.
“Don’t you smell leaf smoke?”
I had a heightened sense of impending distress. People secretly burn leaves in their backyards and alleys and the fumes reach my nose long before they’re made public.
Memories of crackling sparks popping up and away in front of rosey-cheeked children stirred up from my coffee. I love the smell of burning leaves like I love the flirtation of dangerous men. It’s wispy and sweet initially then overpowering and menacing.
“I have to go!” I squealed to my friend, then ran from the whiff of the past.