As Westport cruises into mid-autumn, a familiar ritual begins. Leaves turn from green to breathtaking reds, oranges and yellows. They fall. We walk through them. They're raked up. They're bagged. They're gone.
Autumn has been autumn since long before Westport (or any town) existed. But the ritual is new. Until just three or four decades ago, it went like this: Leaves turned. They fell. We walked through them. We raked them. Then we burned them.
I won't dwell on the raking part: the difference between now and then. It's enough to note that leaf-collecting was once a time for the entire family to work together. It wasn't the toughest task around -- leaves are far easier to gather than snow is to move (and you won't see your breath) -- but it is labor-intensive. So, over a few October weekends, parents and kids spent a few hours outside, raking and piling. The payoff was a chance to leap into heaps of newly-raked leaves, followed by a feast of doughnuts and apple cider. Stevan Dohanos made a career painting scenes like that.
In our uber-busy 21st century, we've outsourced lawn maintenance. Now -- while most of us are busy at work or school -- squads of uniformed workers roar down our roads. They leap out of their vehicles, fire up noisy machines and herd the leaves into small, un-leapable piles. Then -- with military efficiency -- they stuff the leaves into industrial-sized bags and haul them away. By the time we return from work or school, our lawns look as pristine as mid-summer. Just a little less green.
Depending upon your perspective, that's progress. Or regress. But I said I wouldn't dwell on it. I'd rather dwell on the smell.
If you're younger than a certain age -- 50, I'm guessing -- you've never smelled burning leaves. Sometime in the Carter administration, I think, someone discovered that leaf-burning is unhealthy. Though leaves have been burned probably since Adam and Eve's figs, we no longer run around naked in gardens.
Leaf burning causes air pollution and asthma. It irritates the eyes, noses and throats of non-asthmatics. It releases carbon monoxide and benzo(a)pyrene, the same chemical believed to be a major factor in lung cancer.
So -- disappearing as quickly as a puff of smoke -- leaf-burning went the way of mastodon-eating.
It's a wise decision, I'm sure. We no longer smoke cigarettes while changing our baby's diapers, so we should probably refrain from releasing carcinogens on our lawns. But that polluting smell was soooo sweet. Several generations of Americans have grown up never knowing the sharp, wonderful odor of October. Their memories of fall are far different from mine.
A second rite of autumn -- one just as important and memory-making as leaf-burning -- is Halloween. It too has undergone a swift, sharp transformation, in the span of just a few short years.
Back in the (my) day, Halloween was for kids. We'd throw together -- OK, our moms would -- a costume. Most came from the pirate/ghost/princess triad, with an occasional Richard Nixon fright mask. (Very frightening.) We'd go out -- in kid gangs -- and ring doorbells. We'd amass a stash of candy. (And an occasional dollar or two for UNICEF, a small portion of which might actually have made it to Africa.) We'd go home, sit on the floor and gorge.
As we got older, candy-collecting became less important than pumpkin-smashing. Toilet paper-draping. And (I have been advised by counsel that the statute of limitations has passed) mailbox-tossing.
These days, Halloween is as child-oriented as St. Patrick's Day. Costumes have spiraled into elaborate, store-bought affairs -- for adults. Grown men and women -- medical receptionists, post office clerks, United States congressmen -- walk into their workplace dressed from head to toe as whatever is trending at that moment. This year, we'll see tons of Jay Gatsbys and Miley Cyruses.
The time and energy once devoted to removing leaves is now spent decorating those same lawns with elaborate Halloween-y themes. Spider webs, witches' cauldrons, entire haunted houses -- if the stereotypical Martian visiting Earth landed in Westport, he'd think we turned into a theme park.
This being 2013, no child can be left unattended for more than three seconds (it's the law). This being 2013 too, it's no fun trick-or-treating in your own neighborhood. What's the return on investment with one-acre zoning? Halloween today means packing your kids in the car, driving to the densest part of town, then picking those poor souls clean of all their candy and organically grown apples.
But this is Westport. At some homes, the trick-or-treating parents are invited in for wine and cheese.
It's win-win. Adults relax for a few minutes. And kids have a little down time. So they can, you know, go smash a pumpkin or two.