From Luther College Chips
November 1, 2007
What smell hooks your attention? Baking bread? Your tenth-grade crush’s shampoo? Rain? One of my favorites is fall sunshine on dry, fallen oak leaves. That’s a scent that will stop me in my tracks, mesmerized like a miser before a stack of freshly minted coins.
In a season when maples shamelessly flame gold, orange, and stoplight red, most oaks cloak themselves in dull browns, rarely more showy than a new penny. But the scent they splash on for the season is a different story.
One place I associate with that autumn smell is the edge of the oak groves on either side of the library. On fall afternoons as the sun angles to the west and Brandt residents are trying to pretend they can study outdoors, I’ve caught that stop-me-dead fragrance as I walked to Preus.
The smell of oak leaves in a slow bake takes me back to my childhood, when I hunted in the woods after school with my fabulously happy dog, Lucky. It’s what open woodlands smell like when I’m starting to feel like I’ve been cooped up too long, when--in a cool season--suddenly it’s turned warm again. It’s what sunshine smells like when the leaves have turned bright gold and orange.
Once in late adolescence I saw an ad for an essential oil called “oak moss.” I ordered two bottles. When I unscrewed the lid on a vial of the mossy green liquid that came in the mail, it smelled good, but only vaguely like sunshine on fallen oak leaves: just close enough to remind me of what I was missing.
So I admit I’ve tried to pay money for that smell. That is not surprising, considering what, in a deeper sense, it represents.
What began as a faint stirring of sap on similarly warm afternoons in April culminated in a crown of green that soaked up sunshine all summer long, converting solar power, carbon dioxide, water, and soil minerals into the biggest living things on campus.
Once frost threatens, all that green disappears, and the sap retreats to the roots. The oak trees repay the soil with a load of what can go by several unfortunate names: “leaf litter,” “mulch” or “green manure.”
My county soil book reminds me that Winneshiek loam, the soil beneath the campus oaks is typical to meadows and woodlands, and that it “responds” to manure and fertilizer. Fallen leaves break down into the dark humus that will help roots produce a future year’s huge canopy of green solar collectors, a future year’s leaf litter baking in the sun.
The college vacuums up its leaves and deposits them down by the river for townsfolk to collect—mulch and green manure for their lawns and gardens.
When I mowed my lawn over fall break it was the last time I did so to cut grass. From here on out it will be to chop up the leaf litter into fertilizer. Mulched leaves and grass are the main food my lawn gets.
The broken-down pieces of this year’s leaves, through the alchemy of sunlight and soil, will become the lawn on which I next year kneel to catch the softballs my aspiring-pitcher-of-a daughter burns into my glove.
So maybe the smell of autumn sun on oak leaves goes deeper. Maybe somewhere inside that fragrance is a message that appeals to my soul: green summer ahead, deep shade on a steamy day.
The trees may bury their fall gold, orange, red and brown, but not to hide all that wealth away. They are banking it for something equally fine next year.