“I had forgotten about all the leaves over here.”

That’s what my friend Homer said one autumn day as we crunched through a carpet of leaves on the sidewalks along one of the tree-lined streets near UM. Back in the early days of our friendship, Homer lived in Missoula, but he had been living over in the bigger sky part Big Sky Country by then and his visits to this side of the Divide have become comparatively rare. There aren’t many leaves to crackle and pop under foot on the street where he has lived since he moved away from here.

I remember noticing the same thing upon my return to Missoula and the University Area after several years away. Living where I do now near the foot of Mount Sentinel, it is hard not to notice them.

It is a bittersweet thing, of course, after those far too few short weeks of blazing color in October, that the leaves descend to ground level and demand attention.

If there are kids around all those leaves on the ground offer all kinds of possibilities. When my son Sander was a kid and we happened to be walking through the neighborhood in October, it was necessary to find the sidewalks that were deepest in leaves so we could plough through them like human ice-breakers leaving a clear path in our wake. Sometimes Sander decided to go back and forth several times to be sure we have moved them all around.

As soon as enough leaves started to fall, Sander and his friends wanted me to rake up big piles to frolic in. There were leaf forts to build, leaf caves to hide in and leaf wars to wage. The crash landings, explosions, and blizzard of thrown and kicked leaves generally redistributed the whole mess  around the yard so they were  ready to be raked again.

There were science and art projects at school involving collecting different kinds of leaves and displaying them in imaginative ways on colored paper that found a home on the refrigerator door for a while. As I recall, many of the leaves that didn’t end up there managed to sneak into every nook and cranny in the house and every article of clothing Sander had.

When I first moved to the place I live now, I tried to keep the leaves in my yard at bay by raking a few every day as they fell. I thought maybe if I didn’t, my neighbors Nancy and Jean would complain about my unkempt yard. That lasted one year.

I learned that a little breeze would replace every leaf I collected with three new ones, either falling from trees not yet shed of their colorful burden, or just blowing in from somebody else’s yard. I also noticed that my neighbors were not especially worried about getting behind on the raking.

When I was a tot living on Brooks Street, we burned the leaves in the fall. My parents did, that is. I remember my dad and mom both standing by smoldering heaps of leaves tending the smoky fires with rakes, adding more leaves until the piles burned down. I still like the smell of burning leaves.

My friend Gigi once told me about how her mother made a big production of things by baking  potatoes in the glowing ashes of burning leaves when she was a kid. She liked the smell of burning leaves, too, she said.

Those days are gone. Burning leaves has long been unthinkable in our town, and for good reason. Nowadays the City of Missoula collects those leaves. All we have to do is rake them right into the street.

The leaves on my street are all down now and the trees are bare. Many that have been raked into the street have  been fluttering back onto the lawns they were raked off of. Others have become sad and soggy piles due to our October and November rains.

One morning soon, the leaf removal army of the City of Missoula will come rumbling, clanking, and wheezing down our street. I hope when that day comes, I will have remembered to move my vehicles off the street so that I don’t have to rush out in my pajamas to get them out of the way.

Pajamas or not, it’s fun to watch the whole operation with scoops and dump trucks, sweepers, and water trucks working in a well-choreographed display. But once the army departs and the leaves are gone, the bare trees and lawns in the neighborhood sadly signal the end of something magical.

I remember another thing Homer said on that day so long ago. It went like this: “You know, it’s pretty neat to have leaves. It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid back in Illinois.”

And, it reminds me of when I was a kid right here in Missoula.

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