Autumn leaves tug on columnist's five senses

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 28, 2005

As I'm writing this week's column, Nat King Cole's nostalgic tones are reminding me that this week is one of my favourites of the entire year. His refrains are making me uncharacteristically homesick for the place of my youth. They awaken memories long dormant in my five senses.

"The falling leaves drift by the window/The autumn leaves of red and gold."

Oh, the sheer experience of the season!

I spent my youth in western New York State, where maples and oaks indeed vibrate in bright reds and golds past windows, across rolling hills, in picnic groves, and along arboured country roads.

Yes, we have those same colours here in the Alberta foothills, too, but they're more likely to be found in hedgerows of cotoneaster framed in the warm yellow glow of poplars. And yes, as they fall and litter our lawns, we get out the rakes and gather them into piles for carting away.

Did I say piles? They're nothing like the humungous mountains of maple and oak leaves we used to pile up as kids back East. And really, the point wasn't so much to have them hauled away, as to make great heaps to dive into, or just to lie on and watch fluffy cloud critters pass across the deep-blue autumn sky.

And who could resist a spirited leaf fight with the neighbour kids? Or just throwing the aromatic wonders into the air and letting them float back down over our heads and shoulders? Or shuffling ankle-deep along leaf-covered trails and listening to the crisp, crunchy sounds and feel the leaves tickle our legs?

Then, after the hours of fun, we'd select the biggest, most beautiful leaves to take home and press between sheets of wax paper – to preserve them forever (but mine always seemed to crumble in my dresser drawer before spring arrived).

Of course, there was still the question of what to do with all those piles of leaves. Back then no one seemed too worried about smoke pollution and burning bylaws, so we'd have these magnificent leaf-burning parties. And oh, how good the smoke smelled! Even with our eyes closed, we knew fall was in the air.

There was a particular taste to autumn, too. Back where I grew up, autumn came later and lasted longer. The leaves were just finishing up around Hallowe'en. Even now, the thought of leaf-burning makes me thirsty for sweet apple cider with donuts, treats I really pigged out on while my older sisters helped me carve our annual pumpkin and Mom and Dad readied my spooky costume.

Such associations with autumn are not without their counterparts here in southern Alberta.

I was talking about this with Cochrane coffee companion Kate Millar. She loves horseback riding through the autumn splendor, she said, but the aroma she treasures most has less to do with the falling leaves and more to do with the horsey smell of her trusty mount blended with the scent of saddle leather.

My rancher friends associate this season with the sight of golden fields and the smell of fresh-mown hay. Indeed, it's hard to think of autumn in Alberta without those large round hay bales being readied for winter, or the rows of square bales curving gracefully toward the early-snow-covered peaks to the west.

And are you noticing the bright red clusters of berries on mountain ashes around Cochrane? I was enjoying the sight of some one morning this week while scraping a beginning-of-autumn frost off my windshield – a feature of the season here that I never experienced back East.

As Nat King Cole puts it, "soon I'll hear old winter's song."

Without question, I love autumn in our part of Alberta. My wife Mary Anna and I are looking forward to our annual trek down the Kananaskis Valley later this week. We'll ooh and aah at one of the grandest autumn mountain vistas in all the world while taking in ponds and lakes reflecting golds and blues and mountain-top white. And we'll sip spiced tea at a lodge, and shuffle hand-in-hand along leaf-strewn trails.

But through all this, nostalgia will take me back to my youth and to a season of special memories.

"But I miss you most of all, my darling,/When autumn leaves start to fall."

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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