I collect leaves the old fashioned way, with a rake, a barrel and a kid. The rake assembles the leaves, the barrel holds them. Then the kid jumps in and squashes them.
Long ago I was a leaf squasher, but last week I worked on the other side of the barrel as a gatherer. My 6-year-old started off raking. However, once the position of squasher opened up, he tossed aside the rake and the snow shovel, which he had used to scoop up the leaves, and climbed feet-first into the barrel.
As dads do, I began to give the kid instructions. Don't jump too high, I told him, you will lose your balance. Watch out for sticks. Be careful not to lose your balance.
And as kids do, this one obeyed, until he got his confidence up. Then the lure of the giant jump became too great to resist.
I was on the other side of the backyard when I heard the commotion. The barrel slapped to the ground. The kid hollered. Then there was silence as the kid realized that not only had he escaped injury, he also had escaped his father's wrath. I couldn't get mad. When I was a kid, I had done the exact same thing. If there was fault to be found, it was genetic. The kid hails from a clan of enthusiastic leaf stompers.
Since our backyard is about the size of a one-hole miniature golf course, it didn't take very long to rake up the leaves. But in the hour or so of rhythmic scooping and squashing I began to think about the leaf-gathering ritual.
Once, when I had a house with a big yard, I was a neurotic leaf raker. I regarded any leaf on my property as evidence of home-owner sloth. I didn't rest until my lawn was bright green, with no unsightly leaves covering the fertilizer-fed grass. Even then I didn't rest very long. As soon as I hung up my rake, more leaves would tumble to the ground.
Now I am a reluctant raker. I appreciate the blanket of color the leaves give the ground. As a matter of fact, when covered with the dogwood reds and the cherry yellows, our dirt-patch backyard never looked better.
Out in the front of the house, where I often pick up crushed paper cups and empty bottles from the sidewalk, leaves are benign litter. And they are a welcome burst of color before the cement gray days of winter set in.
After you rake the leaves you face the question of what you are going to do with them. Folks with lots of energy and land chop them up, mix them with manure and transform them into compost. I may get around to that someday, but this year the squasher and I gave our leaves to the trash man.
When I was a kid, my dad, brothers and I would dump barrels of leaves on top of the garden. As soon as the pile was waist high, the dormant garden would become "the end zone." Kids from the neighborhood would line up in our backyard, and one called out the imaginary radio play-by-play, another would grab the football and take the 5-yard plunge into the leaf pile and glory.
We also burned some of the leaves. It was legal then. The air might have been dirty, but it sure smelled good.
The aroma of burning leaves stirs my soul. That is why the other night, just before I slapped supper on the barbecue grill, I dropped a few leaves on the hot coals.
I did it for old times sake. And to introduce my leaf squasher to one of the sweetest smells on earth.