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Russell Wangersky: Sense memory

More of the Annapolis Valley's fall leaves will be on the ground after Friday's wind and rain.
More of the Annapolis Valley's fall leaves will be on the ground after Friday's wind and rain.

We forget. We are forgetting right now, even as you read this, shedding thoughts and words and memories. It’s a small and constant tragedy, a personal entropy.

Russell Wangersky

I’m up and on the street at 6:30 a.m., walking, and at first, the street is quiet except for one lone grey and passing car, its headlights thrown out wide on the wet pavement. It’s still mostly dark out, rainy, the clouds bunched in over the hills to the northwest.

I hear their voices first, many of them, loud for so early in the morning, and then the pod of runners lopes into view around the curve of street, 10 or 15 of them, no lights or reflective vests, but a tumble of bright colours.

Yelling over the slap of their own feet, and I can remember running, the long stride and thud of it, but never running while talking, too. I never had the wind for that.

They vanish, but, after they pass, the sound of them lingers like a contrail behind a jet, waiting to be shredded, dissembled by the wind.

It’s funny how the runners round the next corner and drag all humanity with them, like water down the drain, as if the departure of their mobile community leaves me even more alone than when I started out for work. But it does, and the quiet is even quieter.

The rain starts in fits and spits, a shower that I hear spattering against my jacket at first, before I feel scattered mist on my face.

Where the new science building is being built at the university, the heavy equipment is all waking up for the day; I wonder if the construction workers simply stop hearing the overlapping backup tones, if they get so used to there always being something hectoring them. How many warnings can you listen to before you stop hearing them? They’re only on the ironwork right now, and sometimes you get a single hammer-blow on an I-beam that rings like a bell while you’re walking by.

Soon it’s raining more heavily, and I stop to put on my rain gear. There are fall mushrooms bulging up through the turf next to the sidewalk, cow mushrooms and the white fat puffballs that seem to herald fall. The rain is heavy enough to do its street magic, lifting a film of oil and exhaust from the pavement and carrying it to the gutters and storm sewers.

The brook that runs by the hospital is full and tea-brown, and for the first time this year, there are a handful of fallen leaves on the surface of the water, heading towards the pond.

It’s not until the bridge to the hospital that it hits me, and even then, at first, it really only winkles its way into the edge of my consciousness. I’m not smelling anything except the sharp wet metal of the rain, and then, all at once, I am smelling something both new and familiar. A smell I haven’t smelled since spring.

That fine first note of autumn, that hit of composting wet leaves — its only real visual equivalent, the whorl of wood grain on the outside surface of a fresh horse chestnut.

Wood smoke can’t be far away now, nor the chill of frost.

Deserts, mountains; I know it makes sense from a practical point of view that their respective scales are hard to remember, that their sheer massive size makes them hard to index. I know that their singular height and breadth can be breathtakingly new every time they spring into view.

But the first autumn smell of wet leaves, that loamy, rich, feral familiar depth of decay?

How could I not remember that?

It strikes me as hard as the smell itself: how could I possibly forget?


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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