From time to time I make notes for a book I will never write. It would be called Ten Inventions That Ruined the World. Some of them, I would have to confess, like the automobile, have redeeming qualities even though the automobile has ruined the world. Others like television have no redeeming qualities at all. I was reminded of my book that will never be written when I was in England a week or so ago.
I reached old age in the summer this year and realized that I should travel while I still can to places I haven’t seen before. The English countryside was my first destination. Of course I began in London. I took the tube at dusk on the day I arrived and then walked to have dinner with Claudia Roden at her home.
Claudia is the author of exceptional cookbooks that combine food information with history and culture; she is really as much anthropologist and historian as writer and cook.
Her home is in the north of London not a long walk from the Golder’s Green station and I looked forward to the walk as well as to seeing her. When I turned the corner from the main road I began to smell something very familiar. I knew exactly what it was, a smell I used to welcome each year in September and October.
I had forgotten it. No, that’s not right. I hadn’t forgotten it as I have thought about it at this time of year every year for two or three decades and have missed it, the sweet and sour, acrid, acidic, woodsie, musky smell of drying and rotting leaves.
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. Its colors, dark and burnished, have always appealed to me. The overture to winter has always seemed cozy to me. Darkness seems cozy. Autumn more than any other season stimulates my memories of childhood. I remember raking leaves on the hilly front yard of my family’s home in west Baltimore, creating piles on the side of street, jumping into those piles to hide. Our trees produced enough leaves to line the street heavily along our lawn.
It was the smells that have been most important of all to me, the smells of autumn that are even more evocative for me than the perfumed smells of spring.
I thought as I heard my feet crunching leaves on that London street and smelled what I think of as autumn perfumes how rarely I have that treat in Washington. Well, of course, another of the worst inventions of my lifetime has replaced the sounds of crunching leave with those of a loud whiny engine just as it has replaced the sweet and sour odors of rotting leaves with the smells of burning gasoline – the leaf-blower of course.
People write to neighborhood list-serves at this time of year objecting to the sounds of leaf-blowers. I agree with them. A number of years ago I spent a great deal of time in Yountville California helping to open Bouchon Bakery. Every restaurant and hotel in that little town had its own leaf-blowing team on the streets every morning, a population of machines so large that it seemed as if every leaf had its own captive blower. The din was impressive and I tried to persuade the then-mayor to adopt a new town slogan: “Yountville, Leaf-Blowing Capital of America.” What I didn’t realize at the time because Yountville has no real seasons is that we were all being robbed by that infernal machine of all the smells of nature.
Here in Washington too but especially at this time of year when every embassy, every apartment and office building employs leaf-blowers or puts the machine into the hands of staff already there.
I never understand. Why did leaves become the enemy? Why is a pristine sidewalk more attractive than one covered with nature’s debris? I understand why leaves should be raked once or twice during the fall, but every week? Everyday? Why?
And so I was so happy that evening walking the streets in northern London to listen to the crunch of dry leaves under my feet and to smell the complex perfumes of those wet leaves underneath.
Modernity is a thief.