Feeling Rakish This Fall?

By Ernie Witham   |   October 21, 2020

Many people laughed when President Trump suggested that the way to stop wildfires in California was to rake the forests. I had a different reaction. My hands instantly got blisters, my lower back felt strained, and my butt hurt like hell.

I grew up in the heart of the fall foliage spectacle. Every year the hardwoods of New Hampshire went from bright yellow to burnt orange to flaming red to crispy brown. Then all those formerly beautiful leaves, after posing for a million tourist photos, fell off – a good many of them landing in my yard.

My old man did not believe in child labor laws. If you were old enough to walk you were old enough to shovel snow in the winter, mow the lawn in the summer and, of course, rake leaves in the fall.  

“Puts hair on your chest. You’ll thank me one day.” Neither of those things have happened so far.

Oh sure, there are those postcard images of kids jumping into a huge pile of leaves, laughing gleefully, as they melded into a cushion of autumnal bliss. Except, leaves are not soft. They have sharp edges. And there are sticks and rocks in the pile. Also, they do not support you in a mattress-like manner. I found this out early on, when I decided to jump from a low-hanging branch into the colorful mound.

“Ger-on-i-mo!” Not sure why we always yelled the name of an Apache leader, but all the kids did it. It might have been all the syllables. Wouldn’t have been the same to yell “Bob!” 

Seconds after my much ballyhooed daredevil feat, I hit the ground backsides first, to the cheers of the neighborhood kids, who quickly scattered when I did not bounce back up. Did I mention that lawns in New Hampshire get harder and harder as the seasons change? And that just below much of the dying grass is something the state is quite famous for – granite.

“You dead?” an authoritative voice asked.

“Not… quite…,” I grunted.

“Good. Now rake them back up.”

Another fun aspect of the raking season was wind. Seems like you no sooner leaned against your rake to admire your handiwork than an evil breeze wafted in, removing the rest of the leaves from the trees in your yard and you got to watch them land on every available empty space – except in the big pile, which was now spinning about like the Tasmanian Devil in a Looney Tunes cartoon. This may have been when I first started carrying a photo of seaside California in my wallet, right next to the photo of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. 

Ironically, another aspect of the battle of the leaves was disposal. Something “The Prez” probably hadn’t thought of when he suggested removal of 33 million acres worth of dead foliage and other detritus as the climate change cure-all. 

There were several choices for disposal. You could try and cram an entire yard’s worth of leaves into a non-bio-degradable plastic bag, trying to avoid all the sticks from poking out the side and completely shredding the bag. If you were successful, just as you tied a knot in the top you realized your wristwatch was missing.

Another method, for those who owned such a device, was to grind everything up with a chipper attached to your power mower into a mulch that could then be spread back onto the lawn it was just removed from. A defeatist method if there ever was one.

Perhaps the most popular method of disposal was burning. After the pile had set for several days, you would toss a series of matches into it until you got a smolder going then stand back and watch clouds of acrid smoke drift over your fence into the neighbor’s yard, who in turn was sharing his pyre with the next neighbor up the road. 

Occasionally, you would see a kid running up the street, screaming bloody murder and fanning his behind.

“Didn’t know his old man had started them on fire when he jumped in.”


Anyway, taking all this into consideration, I’m not sure raking California is such a great plan. For one thing you’d need like a million kids, a million dads, and a whole bunch of first aid kits.


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