WARSAW — A young Pole, a recent university graduate, recalls this experience: He is in England, has been away for months. A busy summer flies by, and the days grow shorter. On one of those autumnal afternoons that seem spun of soft gold, he catches the smell of burning leaves. His knees go weak. Tears fill his eyes. A chasm of homesickness opens in his chest.
It is that season now in Poland, when it seems that any citizen with a leaf to call his own, or even to borrow from the public supply, is out with a rake and a fistful of matches. From garden plots and curbside margins, the smoke of burning leaves rises all over town. It starts early and thickens at the end of the workday, when those who are able hurry home from jobs and errands, put on their patched trousers and sweat-stiffened gloves, and set about the ritual, each according to his custom.
Even apartment maintenance men, infamous for their tippling and resourceful absences, show up early in the day, and work with the kind of sober concentration rarely applied to a problem of blocked plumbing. The precise geometry of a nice pile of leaves is no casual matter.
There are districts in Warsaw where the strips between houses and streets grow waist-high in weeds all summer, inspiring no evident outburst of civic concern, least of all from the nearby residents. But as soon as the first leaves tumble from the poplars and lindens and maples, the neighbors are out, assessing the situation. They rake and pile, then stand by, glassy-eyed with satisfaction, as the first thick tendrils of smoke rise from the heap.
It may be Poland's nearness to its heritage of farm and village that makes the custom so pervasive, perhaps even necessary, in a city filled with bureaucrats or factory workers confined to yard-less apartment buildings. But those who can, do, as if in proxy for those who can only wish and feel their blood somehow respond to the scent in their nostrils.
Few Poles can explain it; for that matter, few regard any explanation as necessary. Leaves fall, leaves are burned. It requires a foreigner's vast pretension to suggest that every October the entire country takes part in a kind of annual reconsecration of the Polish soil, informal and unorganized, primal and atavistic.
In the countryside, farmers burn the rakings of their fields, the damp tops of potato plants, whatever is not suitable fodder for swine and cattle. The fires smolder for days, the smoke lying in layered sheets and gathering like a fog in the low places. The pastoral pall makes the industrial pollution that hangs over Silesia seem mild by contrast.
Becalmed weather hit Warsaw last week, and an uncommon temperature inversion trapped the usual pollution of coal-fired power plants and thick fumes of gasoline exhaust in combined suspension with the produce of the annual leaf burn. The air of Warsaw was acrid and raw on the throat. Headaches were common. Most Poles claimed not to notice and reacted to any mention of it with the sort of astonishment they might have shown if someone objected to the aroma of a holiday turkey baking in the oven.
Still, there was no letup of the leaf burning, which suggested that for many, it is not sufficient merely to smell the neighbors' smoke, but that it is the precise smell of one's own leaves, self-raked and self-lit, that brings autumn's true and final contentment to the Polish heart.