Burning Leaves: A Meditation on Recycling

leafs-800pxLast Sunday while burning leaves, my grand-daughter asked, “Grandpa, how old are you?”

I thought of tossing a number at her but what would that do? At her age anything beyond single digits was ancient.

Still the question lingered.

I needed something that spoke more to my era than to my years.

“When I was as short as you,” I told her, “a gypsy rag man came down our alley every Thursday in an old wooden wagon pulled by a big lazy horse.”

Of course, the natural response was, “Why?”

“He collected rags and cans, I suppose you could say he did what the recycling truck does these days.”

I lost her when I mentioned recycling, she wanted to know more about the horse pulling the wagon, so we talked about that.

What I didn’t tell her and I shudder to think about it, was how all the neighborhood kids tied their Radio-Flyer wagons to his back axle so they could ride up the hill to the end of the alley.   Now that spoke more to the 1950’s than people still using workhorses.

The other thing I avoided was how in those days – everyone recycled.

The thing is, I didn’t understand why until we moved to our new place and I spotted a burn-barrel hidden in the woods.  The barrel was illegal but this is the country and things like enforcing clean air rules are subject to local interpretations.

People have always burned here and they always will but the barrel got me thinking. I suddenly realized why my parents dutifully cut the ends off of tin cans and squished them flat to save for recycling. They certainly were not doing it out of ecological piety. No one thought about such things in those days. The reason they bagged their cans for the rag man was simple – cans do not burn. If they tossed the cans into the burn-barrel before long the barrel would be filled with soot-stained cans.

Still, they were diligent about recycling. They saved newspapers for the school fund-raising drive and bagged food scraps for the city garbage guys and the other stuff they set out for the gypsy rag man.

Everything else that is – but glass. Glass bottles were valuable because of the deposit. Scrap glass was another matter. Things that did not burn or were not hauled away had to be taken to the dump – in the back of the car.

One of those things was plastic. No one liked it because it stunk when you burned it and not burning it meant more trips to the dump.

Ironically, when the Clean Air Act got rid of the urban burn barrel, everyone stopped recycling. It put the rag man out of business because there was no longer an incentive to separate the trash. All you had to do was dump the stuff in a bag and toss it on the curb.

Plastic and disposable packaging suddenly made sense.

Even the deposit on glass bottles became a thing of the past. Stores hated the labor intensive redeeming process and manufacturing new bottles was always cheaper than washing old ones.

So once everything went into the trash, it required virtue to bring recycling back.

I got to say though, I miss the burn barrel. The scent of burning leaves made this time of year special.  Nowdays, whenever a breeze carries a whiff of it, a thousand memories tag along for the ride.

They were right to stop open burning in the city. There are just too many people with too much trash and even here, miles from town, I have to call the Department of Natural Resources to activate my burning permit every time I toss a match.

Still after the kids were done leaping into my piles of leaves, I stood guard over the fragrant blue column of smoke rising into my oaks and meditated on how fixing one problem, all too often breeds another.

Author: Almost Iowa


35 thoughts on “Burning Leaves: A Meditation on Recycling”

  1. I patiently waited until I was old enough to burn the trash. Then, they passed that law. I was sad.

    Well done. Good explanation of unintended consequences.

    1. It says something about the pace of culture that life can change in the short span of childhood. My kids grew up about a quarter of a mile from the Minnesota River. I always worried about that because I knew what I did as kid in the woods and by the Mississippi in Saint Paul…but my kids never had the inclination to go into the woods or raft down the river. They had television and video games.

  2. Having grown up on a farm, these tales of rag men are foreign to me.

    But, as you would expect, I am familiar with the burning barrel. The tin cans went into the rock pile, located near the burning barrel. I haven’t thought about that in years.

    We burned leaf piles on the gravel driveway.

    1. At our house just east of Blooming Prairie, the place where I wrote this essay, we burned leaves in the gravel driveway. The scent remained until spring. It is what I loved best about it….. than and having to walk out into a field to get cell phone coverage. 😦

  3. I lived in the city during my childhood, so we didn’t have horses or individual burn barrels. Every yard did have a concrete ash pit, but we weren’t allowed to use them anymore. But for four years we lived in a campus apartment, and had to take our trash to the communal incinerator or dumpster, which meant we always divided our trash into “combustible” and “non-combustible” so we knew which went into the incinerator and which went into the dumpster. We also redeemed our glass bottles and burned our own leaves at the curb. You’re right: fixing one problem almost always creates another one!

  4. I always got to play in the leaves before they were burned. The smell of burning leaves is autumn. Every year, when an east wind send smoke from the burning cane fields across the bay, I just smile.

    As for the dump, going there was the highlight of my week. Daddy would wander in and say, “Anybody here want to go to the dump?” and I was in the front seat. Going to the dump was, of course, our excuse to get away from my mother and do as we pleased, including driving “too fast” over the top of the hills to make my tummy feel funny. We called it exploring, and it set some patterns for a lifetime.

    1. Ahhh, that wonderful sensation of weightlessness…. What we will not do for it? Kids still build ramps and break arms and bloody noses for that fleeting sense of absolute freedom. Gravity is the ultimate law and what is more fun than breaking the laws that hold us back? 🙂

  5. Great story and much to think about. The only working horse I remember in our small town was the one who pulled the milk wagon. I was so sad when the milk man got a truck. I remember flattening cans. I think Dad took them to the city dump. Paper things he burned. Vegetable waste went to the garden. Separating our wast was always just a part of life.

  6. We never had a rag man but I remember smashing cans and since my parents owned a small neighborhood grocery store, the deposits on bottles were always a part of it. I never considered it all recycling then or now but I suppose it was. Interesting post.

    1. I always thought they recycled cans and newspapers out of habits that they acquired during the war, then I found the burn barrel and figured it out. As for newspapers, have you ever tried to burn them? Wads of paper do not burn easily. You have to take them apart, almost page by page and feed them into the fire. It is a lot of work.

    1. What did they do with the bones? Inquiring minds want to know. Did they grind them up for livestock feed? Not a good idea these days with mad-cow disease. Did they make fertilizer out of them? I tried to Google it, but Google has is tossing too many irrelevant results in my way.

  7. I remember washing out the tin cans our fruit came in before taking off both ends and smashing them. we’d store them in a large laundry detergent box until “uncle Billy” and Fred came to pick it all up. Fred was a mule. I was always so glad to see Fred……”uncle Billy” not so much. He had bad teeth and wore holey corduroy pants. I bought my first record player from recycled bottles and papers…and it was the height of our week to be picked to watch over the burn barrel. I find myself sorting trash into several different containers depending upon what is going to the dump, the recycler or to the barrel in back……….and since I have “grown up” I also have a compost heap out back. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    1. Our rag man was quite a character. My mother didn’t trust him because he was a “gypsy” and gypsies snatch little children, dontchya know…. 🙂 She did like his horse though.

  8. “fixing one problem, all too often breeds another.”
    So true! This was really interesting–I had no idea about early recycling and how lack of necessity made it die out. I think there’s a good lesson/strategy there!

    1. I like to use that story of horses still being used for work in Saint Paul during my childhood. I also remember a steam locomotive coming into the Minnehaha railroad yards across the street and workers ripping up the streetcar tracks on Dale Street.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: