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.