My brain is hardwired to the smells from my childhood. At this time of the year it is the smell of burning leaves. As early as I can remember, growing up in the Midwest and later in Pennsylvania, the smell of burning leaves told my brain that winter was coming. As the first pile of leaves was raked together and then slowly smoldered into flame, the smell permeated the neighborhood. It was the signal to break out the corduroy pants and sweater vests. Fall was always my favorite season — the closing in, the shutting down, the preparing for winter, never cold enough to be uncomfortable, but it was the warning sign that freezing weather lay ahead.
I have had to re-program my brain for living in California and specifically in a mountain canyon. Now the smell of burning anything results in a sudden panic, a threat and danger. “Fall” has been replaced by “Fire Season.” What was once a smell that made me excited for Halloween and winter holidays now causes me to run outside and sniff the air like an overachieving bloodhound.
It is remarkable to me that a smell as simple as burning leaves can transform from a feeling of joy to one of terror. East coast vs. West coast. There is nothing else that I can think of that I miss to the same degree. Other smells of Fall still remain unaffected by geography. I love the smell of the furnace the first time it is turned on when the weather is cold enough. The smell of the summer dust burning off the furnace is reassuring. It only happens once a year, like the first frost. You can only smell it the first time you turn on the furnace, then you have to wait another year. It is like the furnace waking up from a long sleep to then begin its winter job. I also love that cold crisp thick air you first notice early in the morning when you go outside. The difference is that in the East, it lasted all day. Football weather some call it. In California, it is only in the morning, the sun burns it off well before noon.
There is no breaking out of the snow tires with their deep rubbery aroma or rustling through the hall closet looking for scarves, gloves and the clothes of winter. It has been replaced for me by putting away the Hawaiian Shirts of summer and breaking out the plaid flannel shirts. Not the heavy east coast plaid wool of Pendleton, but the cottony, lightweight stuff that J. Crew calls “Fall,” but does not really feel “Fall.”
I’ve been known to put up Halloween decorations on the first day of September just so I can get two full months of Autumn visuals. I swear that some of my childhood decorations (yes, I still have them) still smell of burning leaves, apple cider and carved pumpkins. A heady mixture that instantly sends me back in time.
Today, when I get nostalgic for the Full Fall Experience, I’ll put a handful of dried leaves in the fireplace before building a log fire. I’ll light the leaves, close my eyes, take a deep inhale and for a brief moment, fall back to the Autumn of my childhood.