"When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons.
Now I've got that feeling once again
I can't explain you would not understand
"When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone."
- Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb (Gilmour, Waters)
I’m always hurrying to the next thing, rushing the moments out of my way like raking dry autumn leaves – kicking up dust to obscure the other senses. Strolling slowly through the back yard this cool morning, there was a moisture-laden breeze that stirred the recently watered surfaces. There was a smell reminiscent of raking leaves as a kid.
I have absolutely no childhood memories of traditional fall foliage where tree leaves are painted in burning reds and warm oranges: such memories came later. Many people can recall the unmistakably lovely smell of the smoke of dry burning leaves, tended by dads with hovering rakes. I too recall that smell of leaves burning, but it isn’t as powerful.
This morning, the smell in the air reminded me of the majestic oak trees in the neighborhood I grew up in. When we were kids – before the EPA made us stop burning leaves – there was a magical time when the leaves fell, and we raked them into piles at the edge of the yard, just over the border of the crude asphalt curb where the street began. That’s where they were to be burned.
What happened after we raked them into piles into the gutter, that’s the smell I recalled today. After they were piled up, but before they were burned, we got take turns, each taking running jumps into the deepest piles, burying ourselves in the brown leaves, and then raking the piles high again for the next jumper. And oh, the smell. It was pure aromatherapy, before that word was even invented. It was the smell of the leaves that, in crushing their plain brown wrappers open, we released the final earthy smell of vigorous life. In the middle of the pile of leaves, was the organic leaf-memory of how they once sprang to life in a former season.
The smell associated with those childhood memories was what I smelled this morning – the unmistakable harbinger of autumn, brisk and cool. I was prompted to slow down and listen to the message from some vestigial level of my brain where scent is the language of deepest meaning. Peering down, I could smell the mulch being born beneath my feet. The sight reminded me of the color of the raked leaves. It was a uniform, dingy brown: the color of the stuff the dust is made of just before it becomes dust. Yet to me then, it was like magically sparkling gold would be to my eyes today. If it was a taste, it would be as a rejuvenating earthy potion to my tongue. The tactile feel was better than any feather bed in the history of the universe.
One particular magical Saturday morning, I must have been coming down with the flu while we raked leaves; but I was too young to realize I was getting sick. I must have sort of passed out in the leaves, where I must have had some lovely dreams. Some sibling had called Mom to the scene. I recall being picked up by my mother, who most certainly muttered softly in my ear as her hand caressed my forehead and detected fever. I was tucked in bed, but remember nothing about feeling sick. I do remember that the primeval jungle smell in that leaf pile is associated with the most wonderful remembrance of childhood innocence, protected from the whole world by a loving mother who had the power to make everything better.
This is the memory I recalled this morning in my garden – where microscopic levels of the same smell triggered a memory from thousands of miles away, and dozens of years ago.
We don’t have much of an autumn here, and we certainly have no fragrant oak leaves to mulch or burn. But some smell this morning awakened a memory so wonderful it became a dream. The smell was like jumping into piles of raked leaves, and awakening their final innocent, alive, olfactory glory one last time before they burned.
I don’t rake leaves any more, and it's been a while since I jumped into a pile. But earlier today, I caught another fleeting glimpse of whatever it was that I once saw in a childhood fever dream, way back before I had any inkling of how scary the grown-up world would be.