By Arthur H. Gunther III
Spring Valley, N.Y. — The time: 2:55 a.m. Place: parking lot of the United Church. Reason: Tuesday start for the Rockland (County) Interfaith Breakfast Program. What’s unusual: a special whiff of fallen leaves returning to nature in early fall.
Deciduous leaves drop every autumn in so many parts of the United States and world, some in beautiful colors. And drying leaves, kicked about on sidewalks by youngsters and oldsters and those in between is common, too, as is the wind gathering a dozen or so and swirling them about as if in Dorothy’s cyclone. The “taste” of all this is in the smell, even the fragrance of leaves losing their living liquid and drying to crispness, then morphing to mulch and renewal.
In Spring Valley, at 2:55 a.m. on a Tuesday that would soon be bustling at United Church as a cook and food preparers and servers volunteered in common effort, the leaves, some anyway, had fallen, and there was the expected whiff, so pristine though life of a sort was ending, as pristine as a spring and emerging flowers. With a slight chill in the air, you knew fall was coming, and wasn’t that just fine. For some of us, wonderful.
What made it unusual, this moment shared by so many thousands worldwide, was that I stepped out of the car at age 70 but in a millisecond I was again 12 and at this same church, then the Dutch Reformed. There for a Boy Scout meeting on a Friday night, I had walked from my home about two miles away and had rustled the leaves with my feet, taking in the smell of old oaks and maples.
Now I have done this, rustled leaves, hundreds of times since, and there is always the special fragrance. Yet, this time, at 2:55 a.m. in Spring Valley, in the parking lot of United Church, under an ancient oak that predates my grandfather’s time in the village, I instantly caught in my nostrils the very same smell I had in the very same place 60 years earlier. That fragrance has never been duplicated elsewhere.
Can one place, even in different times, give you the identical smell? Maybe. Maybe it’s in a community’s DNA.
A fine morning start that Tuesday was.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any or all of this essay may be reproduced with credit given.